Will Ecuador voters set a precedent on oil drilling in the Amazon?

Citizens are set to vote in a historic referendum on whether oil extraction should continue in Yasuni National Park.

An Indigenous woman, her head crowned in yellow feathers, raises two hands covered in black tar
Waorani leader Nemonte Nenquimo shows hands stained with oil from a nearby spill in the province of Sucumbios, Ecuador, on June 26 [Courtesy of Sophie Pinchetti/Amazon Frontlines]

Quito, Ecuador – For the first time in history, citizens from Ecuador will be asked this weekend to decide on the future of oil extraction in the Amazon.

The referendum on Sunday will ask voters whether they want oil drilling to continue in Yasuni National Park, hailed as one of the world’s greatest havens of biodiversity. The largest protected area in Ecuador, the park contains massive oil reserves that cross Indigenous land.

“We now have the power to let go of the oil companies and give victory to land, water and life,” Nemonte Nenquimo, an Indigenous leader of the Waorani people, told Al Jazeera. “[The referendum will be] a day we will remember as the day the planet started to win, and corrupt politicians and oil companies lost.”

The Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) oil field spans nearly 2,000 hectares (4,942 acres), part of which crosses onto Yasuni land, home to the Tagaeri and Taromenane people, who live in voluntary isolation.

In 2007, then-President Rafael Correa introduced an initiative to keep more than 800 million barrels of oil underground within the ITT field, in an effort to protect the area’s biodiversity and Indigenous peoples, while also preventing substantial carbon emissions.

In exchange, he sought a contribution of $3.6bn from the international community — half of the estimated potential earnings from oil extraction in the affected region.

But by 2013, after raising just $13m towards that goal, Correa declared that “the world has failed us” — and his proclamation marked the death knell for the Yasuni conservation scheme.

Correa swiftly abandoned the plan and pivoted from his preservationist stance. The ITT field has since reached production levels of more than 57,000 barrels a day.

Former Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa lifts an oil-covered hand as he tours Aguarico's forests in 2013.
In 2013, then-President Rafael Correa backed away from a plan he previously championed to reduce oil extraction on Yasuni land [File: Guillermo Granja/Reuters]

Long battle

In the ensuing years, activism by the environmental group Yasunidos has continued to put pressure on the government, culminating in Sunday’s referendum. It will ask voters: Should the state keep extracting oil from this sensitive region of the country?

The outcome has the potential to redefine the extractive model in the Amazon and serve as a precedent for other regions.

“This historic moment marks the inception of the world’s first popular consultation, allowing citizens to chart the preservation course for our planet’s most biodiverse region,” Yasunidos spokesperson Pedro Bermeo told Al Jazeera.

This moment has been a long time coming. After the Ecuadorian government’s 2013 turnaround on the question of oil drilling, Yasunidos swiftly amassed hundreds of thousands of signatures on a petition demanding a public consultation. But in a controversial decision, the country’s National Electoral Council annulled more than half of the signatures, and the referendum was not held.

After a years-long battle, however, the petition by Yasunidos was given a green light last year by an Ecuadorian court, paving the way for Sunday’s referendum.

In 2008, Ecuador became the first country in the world to grant constitutional rights to nature, and Indigenous peoples are legally entitled to consultation on projects that could affect their lands.

“Should the ‘Yes’ vote prevail, Ecuador could stand as a beacon amid the global climate crisis,” Bermeo said.

Four Indigenous women stand together in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
Nemonte Nenquimo, second from right, stands with traditional Waorani leaders Obe Pa (left) and Omanca (second from left), as well as anti-mining activist Josefina Tunki [Courtesy of Sophie Pinchetti/Amazon Frontlines]

Economic opposition

On the other side of the spectrum, those pushing for a “No” vote have focused on the economic picture.

“Suspending ITT exploitation would result in a loss of $1.2bn annually, which would be detrimental to the country’s economy,” Energy Minister Fernando Santos told Al Jazeera.

That figure is disputed by some, including the country’s former economy minister, Wilma Salgado, who says the losses would be less than half of that, based on the amount of recoverable oil in the ITT field and its estimated value.

There are also concerns about the existing oil infrastructure. Petroecuador, the state oil company, has estimated that a successful referendum would require a complex, years-long process of dismantling infrastructure in the ITT, costing upwards of $467m.

After more than a half-century of oil exploitation, about a third of the Ecuadorian government’s revenue comes from oil, but more than half of the Amazonian population lives in poverty. Oil spills are also a common occurrence in the Ecuadorian Amazon, with dozens reported each year.

In the twilight, an Indigenous leader stands in front of a gas flare near an oil drilling site.
Waorani leader Nemonte Nenquimo stands beside a gas flare near Shushufindi in the province of Sucumbíos, Ecuador, on June 26 [Courtesy of Sophie Pinchetti/Amazon Frontlines]

Amid global calls to address the climate crisis and curb fossil-fuel use, academic research has shown that Ecuador could be on track to exhaust its oil reserves by 2030. As this deadline looms, experts have underscored the vital need to contemplate a post-extractive economy.

In the meantime, regardless of the outcome on Sunday, Ecuadorian political scientist Gregorio Paez told Al Jazeera that “the Yasunidos-led fight is crystallising into a symbol of civic participation and democracy”.

He added: “They are a testament to the power of grassroots activism, empowering citizens to make decisions about our resources [and] igniting aspirations for other social movements — not only here, but also on a global scale.”

Source: Al Jazeera