People from the Waoraní Indigenous community attend an event promoting a ‘yes’ vote in a referendum on not extracting oil in Quito, Ecuador, on Monday 14 August 2023. AP PHOTO/DOLORES OCHOA/ALAMY
Earlier this year, something extraordinary happened. For the first time in history, a nation’s people directly voted to keep fossil fuels in the ground. In a national referendum on 20 August, Ecuador said ‘si’ to ending oil drilling in Yasuní National Park.
One of the most biologically diverse places on the planet, Yasuní is home to the Waoraní, Kichwa and Shuar peoples, as well as some of the world’s last Indigenous communities still living in voluntary isolation. But beneath this UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve lies a quarter of Ecuador’s known oil reserves.
Local resistance to the oil industry dates back to the 1940s. Decades of struggle resulted in the southern part of Yasuní being declared off-limits to drilling in 1999. However, licenses were issued to oil companies to begin exploiting other parts of the park from 2004.
Then, in 2007, newly elected president Rafael Correa made an offer to the world: if the international community could compensate Ecuador for half the estimated value of the untapped oil, his government would leave it in the ground. An international campaign – supported by New Internationalist – called on Northern governments to pledge the necessary $350 million per year as part of their climate commitments. But the money was not forthcoming, and in 2013 Correa gave the go-ahead for drilling to begin.
Indigenous leaders and environmental campaign groups continued to organize, even as the first drills bored into the ground. Over the next 10 years, they built a popular campaign, laying the groundwork for this year’s historic vote.
August’s referendum result requires extraction in Yasuní to halt immediately. The companies will then have 18 months to remove all oil infrastructure, clean up and restore the land.
How was this victory achieved? Campaigners from the Yasunidos youth collective – formed in 2013 in direct response to the drilling licences – needed to gather 750,000 signatures to call a referendum. They then had to win over a majority of the population in the face of determined pro-drilling campaigning from the government.
According to Ivonne Yánez of Ecuadorian environmental group Acción Ecológica, unity was key: ‘Indigenous peoples and their allies succeeded in making this a national issue, and showing how saving Yasuní was important to everyone in the country, not just to local communities,’ she explains. ‘This meant building new partnerships outside our usual circles, to challenge the government narrative that this oil was needed for jobs and development. Many people in Ecuador already understood that decades of oil exploitation have not brought security or prosperity to most of us, and were ready to try a different path.’
Ecuadorian environmentalists are now gearing up to defend the referendum result and ensure that its terms are properly implemented. Oil advocates will no doubt start blaming every economic woe in Ecuador on the Yasuní drilling ban, and call for its reversal or delay. But the fact that millions of people decided collectively to keep almost a billion barrels of oil (and huge potential income) in the ground throws down a challenge to governments and climate movements worldwide. If a low-income country like Ecuador can do this, how can countries like the US, UK, Canada or Australia justify their own plans for new fossil fuel extraction?
This isn’t just a victory for the climate and biodiversity. It’s a powerful example of people voting for positive long-term values over perceived short-term economic gain – and it wasn’t an isolated case. A regional referendum on the same day also succeeded in banning mining operations around the capital, Quito.
Despite the challenges ahead, Yánez is hopeful: ‘The government did not believe that this result was possible – they could not understand that millions could take a very conscious political decision to vote for life over capitalism. But they did.’