- Millions of people participated in a nationwide referendum to determine whether crude oil should remain in the ground indefinitely at a site inside Yasuní National Park in Ecuador’s eastern Amazon.
- More than 5.2 million people voted in favor compared with 3.6 million against, solidifying protections for Indigenous communities living in voluntary isolation.
- The referendum took place alongside presidential and legislative elections as well as a referendum on halting mining in the Chocó Andino de Pichincha. That referendum received nearly 70% support from voters.
Yesterday, Ecuador voted to halt all future oil drilling in a sensitive protected area known for its fragile rainforest ecosystem and isolated Indigenous communities.
Millions of people participated in a nationwide referendum to determine whether crude oil should “remain in the subsoil” indefinitely at a site inside Yasuní National Park in Ecuador’s eastern Amazon. More than 5.2 million people voted in favor compared with 3.6 million against, solidifying protections for Indigenous communities living in voluntary isolation.
“It was worth going out campaigning in the different provinces of Ecuador. We’ve traveled through the Amazon, the mountains and the coast — and this is the result,” Norma Nenquimo, vice president of the Waorani people of Ecuador, told Mongabay as the voting results came in Monday morning.
The referendum concerned whether to close an oil block in the park known as Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT), where excavation has been underway since 2016 despite outcry from conservationists and some local Indigenous communities. The area currently has 12 oil platforms and 230 wells producing around 57,000 barrels of oil per day, according to operators.
Hear this reporter discuss the referendum result on Mongabay’s podcast, listen here:
Oil production in the area has been a major driver of economic growth and generated more than $4.2 billion in revenue for the country, which for years has been one of South America’s top producers. Crude oil production accounts for nearly 30% of its total exports, with around 8 billion barrels produced last year.
Oil spills and the construction of a road for transporting oil from the ITT have threatened the Indigenous Tagaeri, Taromenane and Dukagaeri communities living in voluntary isolation, as well as other Indigenous groups like the Waorani, Kichwas and Shuar, human rights and environmental advocates have said.
The 982,000-hecatre (2,426,574-acre) protected area is also one of the most biodiverse on the planet, containing 1,130 species of trees, 81 species of bats and 593 species of birds, among other flora and fauna.
“I believe that all the fauna in the ecosystem that couldn’t speak up for themselves, the rivers and the animals, are spiritually happy. We have that connection [with nature] and I can feel the harmony,” said Uyunkar Domingo Peas Nampichkai, an Indigenous Shuar leader and president of the Amazon Sacred Headwaters Initiative.
However, not all Indigenous people in the region are on the same page. Many Indigenous communities who live in or near Yasuní have defended the oil industry, and 16 Indigenous communities living in and around the park reportedly voted against the referendum. They argue that the oil industry has brought development to the area and provided them with stable livelihoods they otherwise won’t have access to in the rainforest.
A decade of legal battles
Yasuní National Park has been at the center of environmental and human rights debates for decades, with different governments trying to strike the right balance between satisfying environmentalists while still drilling for oil.
In 2007, the Yasuní-ITT initiative was created as an area off-limits to drilling but only under the condition that the international community compensate Ecuador for the oil revenue it would lose — estimated at around $3.6 billion. By 2013, that plan had failed and Petroecuador, the state-run oil company, was pushing to start up oil extraction in the area.
A referendum presented by the government in 2018 expanded the park’s “intangible” zone by another 50,000 hectares (123,552 acres) and reduced the total area dedicated to oil extraction from 1,030 hectares to 300 hectares (2,545 acres to 741 acres), but many conservation groups said it wouldn’t be enough to stop extraction in the park and protect uncontacted tribes.
This weekend’s referendum used more specific language than the 2018 one and generated more confidence from conservationists and Indigenous communities because it was born out of a grassroots campaign rather than introduced by government officials.
Anti-extractives group Yasunidos started collecting petition signatures to trigger a referendum after the ITT initiative failed in 2013. It also spent years fighting for the validity of the signatures in various appeals courts.
“There should never have been oil exploitation in Yasuní,” Pedro Bermeo, a Yasunidos spokesperson, told Mongabay. “Oil exploitation in Yasuní should always have been prohibited, not only because the people there live in isolation but because it’s a protected area.”
In 2022, the country’s National Electoral Council accepted Yasunidos’ request for a referendum and concluded that enough legitimate signatures had been collected. The case then moved to the constitutional court, which in May ruled that the referendum question was legitimate and could appear on the ballot during legislative and presidential elections.
There was also a referendum on halting copper, gold and silver mining activity in the Chocó Andino de Pichincha, a biosphere reserve outside of Quito. That referendum received nearly 70% of voter support as the count was finishing up Monday.
Petroecuador has said the outcome will have a negative economic impact on the country at large, losing nearly $1.2 billion in income and forcing the government to slash social spending and reduce subsidies that many families depend on. The general manager of Petroecuador expects nearly $14 billion in losses over the next 20 years and in addition to $1.9 billion in oil infrastructure investments in the area.
Officials now have one year to withdraw from the ITT and are prohibited from signing new contracts authorizing oil exploration. Failing to comply could result in a lawsuit through the constitutional court and the dismissal of all officials involved.
“We’re going to keep working and making an impact with the government and Indigenous communities to set an example for the rest of the world,” Peas Nampichkai said. “Because the rest of the world and all its governments know that we’re facing an environmental crisis.”
Banner image: Squirrel monkey near Yasuní National Park. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay
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