In a historic example of climate democracy, Ecuadorans have voted to halt an oil drilling project in the Yasuni National Park, a diverse biosphere in the Amazon reserve. The “Yes” vote, which won by 59 percent with 98 percent of votes tallied, was celebrated by the country's two main indigenous organizations, Confeniae and Conaie, who posted on social media, "Today Ecuador takes a giant step to protect life, biodiversity, and indigenous people."
This victory comes after years of demands for a referendum, with the country's highest court authorizing the vote in May to decide the fate of "block 43." This oil block contributes 12 percent of Ecuador's daily oil production of 466,000 barrels. The block is located within a reserve spanning over one million hectares, which is home to three of the world's last uncontacted Indigenous populations and a wide range of plant and animal species.
The drilling in block 43 began in 2016 after former president Rafael Correa's failed efforts to persuade the international community to pay $3.6 billion to prevent drilling. However, the government of outgoing President Guillermo Lasso estimated a loss of $16 billion over the next 20 years if drilling were to be halted.
Yasuni National Park is a critical carbon sink within the Amazon basin, which spans eight nations. Scientists have warned that the destruction of the Amazon rainforest is pushing it closer to a tipping point, where trees will no longer absorb carbon but release it instead, leading to catastrophic consequences for the climate.
The fate of the reserve has attracted the attention of celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio and Greta Thunberg, who have praised the referendum as a significant step in democratizing climate politics. DiCaprio wrote on Instagram, "With this first-of-its-kind referendum worldwide, Ecuador could become an example in democratizing climate politics, offering voters the chance to vote not just for the forest but also for Indigenous rights, our climate, and the well-being of our planet."
Yasuni National Park is not only a biodiverse hotspot but also home to the Waorani and Kichwa tribes, as well as the Tagaeri, Taromenane, and Dugakaeri, who choose to live in isolation from the modern world. The park, designated a world biosphere reserve by UNESCO in 1989, boasts an impressive array of wildlife, including 610 bird species, 139 amphibian species, and 121 reptile species, with several of them being endemic.
While the “Yes” vote is celebrated as a victory for climate and indigenous rights, locals in the Yasuni region were divided, with some supporting the economic benefits brought by oil companies. Nevertheless, the outcome of the referendum requires state oil company Petroecuador to dismantle its operations in the coming months, dealing a significant blow to President Guillermo Lasso, who advocated for oil drilling.
The referendum took place alongside the presidential election, which is headed for a runoff between leftist candidate Luisa Gonz??lez and right-wing contender Daniel Noboa. The country remains in political turmoil following the assassination of one of the candidates, Fernando Villavicencio.