In a landmark referendum, Ecuadorians have voted against oil drilling in a protected area of the Amazon rainforest that is home to two uncontacted tribes and a rich biodiversity. The referendum took place on Sunday, August 21, 2023, along with the presidential election, which will be decided in a runoff between leftist candidate Luisa González and right-wing contender Daniel Noboa. The country is experiencing political turmoil following the assassination of one of the candidates, Fernando Villavicencio.
With over 90% of the ballots counted by early Monday, around six in 10 Ecuadorians rejected the oil exploration in Block 43, situated within Yasuni National Park. The outcome represents a significant blow to Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso, who advocated for oil drilling, asserting that its revenues are crucial to the country’s economy. As a result of the vote, state oil company Petroecuador will be required to dismantle its operations in the coming months.
Yasuni National Park: a world biosphere reserve
Yasuni National Park is one of the world’s most biodiverse regions, boasting 610 species of birds, 139 species of amphibians, and 121 species of reptiles. At least three species are endemic. In 1989, Yasuni was designated a world biosphere reserve by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, also known as UNESCO.
The park is also inhabited by the Tagaeri and Taromenani, who live in self-isolation. These Indigenous groups have resisted contact with the outside world and have defended their territory from intruders. Oil drilling poses a serious threat to their survival and their way of life.
A long and winding process
The referendum is the result of a long and winding process that started in 2007, when then-President Rafael Correa announced that Ecuador would refrain from oil exploration in Block 43 if rich nations compensated the poverty-stricken country. This was to be accomplished through establishment of a $3.6 billion fund, equal to 50% of the projected revenue from the block. However, the fund drew in only a small fraction of the intended amount.
As a result, in August 2013, Correa declared Ecuador’s intention to proceed with oil exploration in the block. In response, Indigenous and environmentalist movements initiated a campaign under the banner of the Yasunidos movement, seeking to amass signatures for the referendum. After almost one decade of legal battles and bureaucratic hurdles, the Supreme Court ruled in May that the measure must be incorporated into this year’s election.
A victory for nature and human rights
The decision to ban oil drilling in Yasuni National Park has been hailed as a victory for nature and human rights by various organizations and activists. Nemo Guiquita, a leader of the Waorani tribe, told The Associated Press: “Ecuadorians have come together for this cause to provide a life opportunity for our Indigenous brothers and sisters and also to show the entire world, amidst these challenging times of climate change, that we stand in support of the rainforest.”
Carlos Mazabanda, an Ecuadorian campaigner for Amazon Watch, said: “This is a historic day for Ecuador and for the planet. The people have spoken loud and clear: they want to protect Yasuni from oil exploitation and preserve it for future generations. This is a huge win for the environment, for Indigenous rights, and for democracy.”