Ecuador votes in historic referendum that could democratize climate policy


The people of Ecuador are going to the polls – but they’re not just voting for a new president. For the first time in history, the people will decide the fate of oil extraction in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

The referendum will give voters the chance to decide whether oil companies can continue drilling in one of the most biodiverse places on Earth, Yasuní National Park, home to Ecuador’s last isolated indigenous communities.

The park covers approximately one million hectares at the meeting point of the Amazon, the Andes and the Ecuador. A single hectare of Yasuní land supposedly contains more animal species than all of Europe and more tree species than all of North America.

But beneath the earth lies Ecuador’s largest crude oil reserve.

“We are leading the world in the fight against climate change by bypassing politicians and democratizing environmental decisions,” said Pedro Bermo, spokesman for Yasunidos, an environmental collective that pushed for the referendum.

It’s a decade-long battle that began when former President Rafael Correa boldly proposed that the international community give Ecuador $3.6 billion so that Yasuní would not be disturbed. But the world hasn’t been as generous as Correa hoped. In 2016, Ecuador’s national oil company began drilling in Block 43 – about 0.01% of the national park – which today produces more than 55,000 barrels per day, representing about 12% of Ecuador’s oil production. Ecuador.

Aerial photo of the Tiputini processing center of the national company Petroecuador, in Yasuni National Park, June 21, 2023.

An ongoing crusade of relentless campaigning and a successful petition finally made its mark: in May, the country’s Constitutional Court allowed the vote to be included on the ballot for the upcoming election.

This is a decision that will likely be decisive for the future of the Ecuadorian economy. Supporters of continued drilling say the loss of job opportunities would be disastrous.

“The supporters of the demand to keep crude underground did it ten years ago, when there was nothing. Ten years later, we find ourselves with 55,000 barrels per day, or 20 million barrels per year,” Energy Minister Fernando Santos told local radio.

“At $60 a barrel, that’s $1.2 billion,” he added. “This could cause enormous damage to the country,” he said, referring to economic damage and denying the existence of environmental damage.

Alberto Acosta-Burneo, an economist and editor of the Weekly Analysis newsletter, said Ecuador would be “shooting itself in the foot” if it stopped drilling. In a video posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, he said that without reducing consumption it would mean another country selling Ecuadorian fuel.

But “yes” supporters have ideas for filling the gap, from promoting ecotourism and electrifying public transportation to eliminating tax exemptions. They claim that removing subsidies to the richest 10% of the country would generate four times more than what is obtained from extracting Yasuní’s oil.

“This election has two faces,” Bermo explained.

“On the one hand we have violence, candidates, parties and the same political mafias that have governed Ecuador without significant changes.

“On the other hand, the referendum is the opposite: a citizens’ campaign full of hope, joy, art, activism and a lot of collective work to save this place. We are very optimistic. »

Among those campaigning to stop drilling is Helena Gualinga, an indigenous rights defender from a remote village in the Ecuadorian Amazon, home to the Kichwa Sarayaku community.

A sample of crude oil taken from an oil well in Yasuní National Park, where the referendum vote could involve leaving crude oil in the ground indefinitely.

“This referendum represents a huge opportunity for us to create change in a tangible way,” she told CNN.

For Gualinga, the most crucial aspect of the referendum is that if Yasunidos wins, the national oil company will have a one-year deadline to complete its operations in Block 43.

She explained that some oil companies have left areas of the Amazon without properly shutting down operations or restoring the area.

“That sentence would mean they have to do that.”

Those who want to continue drilling in the area say it would be impossible to meet the one-year deadline to dismantle the operations.

The referendum comes as the world faces scorching temperatures, with scientists declaring July the hottest month on record, and the Amazon nearing what studies suggest is a critical tipping point that could have serious consequences. serious implications in the fight against climate change.

And according to Antonia Juhasz, senior fossil fuel researcher at Human Rights Watch, it is time for Ecuador to transition to a post-oil era. Ecuador’s oil GDP has fallen significantly, from around 18% in 2008 to just over 6% in 2021.

She believes the benefits of protecting the Amazon outweigh the benefits of maintaining reliance on oil, especially given the cost of regular oil spills and the consequences of the worsening climate crisis.

“The Amazon is worth more intact than in pieces, just like its people,” she said.


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