For nearly 20 years, activists sought to protect Ecuador’s rainforest and its people from oil extraction. On Sunday, they won.
When Consejo Nacional Electoral del Ecuador announced results of Sunday’s referendum on oil drilling, the election authority confirmed a historic first: The people of Ecuador, in a democratic vote, passed a binding measure that forces the end of oil extraction on environmentally sensitive indigenous lands in the Amazon.
Supporters say it marks the first time in Ecuador (and possibly anywhere) that a question on oil and gas operations was decided by the people that such climate decisions affect. The majority of voters (59%) said it was time for Petroecuador, the national oil company, to abandon plans to move forward at its Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) oilfields where expansion in Block 43 has been opposed by activists.
The oil is within the Yasuni National Park, an Amazon rainforest that’s home to critical species, particularly birds. UNESCO, the United Nations agency, says there are 610 bird species recorded, along with biodiverse plants, mammals and reptiles. Ecuador already gets about 18% of its oil income from lands within the Yasuni, but recent years have seen increased resistance due to carbon emissions, land use, species extinction, and other climate impacts driven by the fossil fuel industry.
Further activity in the ITT oilfields also threatened residents of the Yasuni, among them the indigenous Waorani, Kichwa and Shuar. Several hundred people are among the world’s last remaining uncontacted peoples and live in voluntary isolation, including the Tagaeri-Taromenan and the Huaorani people.
Petroecuador has argued that industry investments support Ecuador’s economy, and it creates jobs and development opportunities for the Waorani and others living in the Yasuni, some of whom support the oil economy. The corporation touts its record on environmental protection and the US$6 million that its regional operations have contributed to the economy since 2017. It also says it will lose billions if forced to dismantle oil fields, while acknowledging on Monday the company’s “absolute respect” for the democratic process.
But advocates of rainforest protection have long argued against the damage of oil extraction, especially in this northeast region of Ecuador. Efforts to leave the Yasuni oil resources untouched date to 2005. A 2007 proposal under former President Rafael Correa, who remains influential in Ecuadoran politics, sought to protect the Amazon from the oil industry with US$3.6 billion in funding from global governments investing in climate protections.
Yet the support never materialized and Ecuador continued to invest in much-needed oil revenues. Opposing activists sought a national referendum as early as 2014 but experienced interference, including adverse court rulings and harassment of indigenous leaders.
The victory on Sunday’s referendum is nothing less than historic, both for Ecuador and the planet, said advocates with YASunidos, based in Quito. The referendum, “born out of citizenship, demonstrates the greatest national consensus in Ecuador. In addition, it is the first time a country has decided to defend life, leave oil underground and start a change to look for a better future for all,” the group said.
Their efforts were celebrated by affiliated organizations across Ecuador and beyond, including human rights groups as well as climate activists focused on protecting their own nations from future fossil fuel operations.
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