‘Historic’: Ecuador voters reject oil drilling in Amazon protected area

Nearly 60 percent of voters back a push to halt to drilling in Yasuni National Park, a victory for environmental groups.

Man standing in canoe traversing river
A man from the Waorani of Pastaza Indigenous group navigates the Curaray River in the Amazon province of Pastaza, Ecuador, in April 2022 [File: Fabio Cuttica/Thomson Reuters Foundation]

Voters in Ecuador have passed a referendum to prohibit oil drilling in a protected area of the Amazon rainforest, a move hailed as “historic” by environmental activists.

With nearly all the votes counted on Monday, almost 60 percent supported the ban on oil development in Yasuni National Park, often described as one of the world’s greatest havens of biodiversity.

The referendum was part of a snap general election on Sunday that included votes for the presidency and National Assembly.

“Today we made history,” Yasunidos, an environmental group that backed the referendum, said in a social media post. It applauded the vote as a “historic victory for Ecuador and for the planet”.

The Yasuni National Park — home to hundreds of species of birds, amphibians and reptiles — was designated by the United Nations cultural agency, UNESCO, as a biosphere reserve in 1989. The park is also the home of several Indigenous communities, some of whom live in self-isolation.

The area also holds some of Ecuador’s largest deposits of oil, fuelling pressure to drill in the area.

Initially, the government of former President Rafael Correa endeavoured to protect the area from development. In 2007, he introduced an initiative calling for the international community to contribute $3.6bn in exchange for a ban on drilling.

But when the aid did not materialise, Correa and his successors proceeded with oil extraction on Yasuni land.

Scientists have warned that the Amazon could soon reach a tipping point: Deforestation from oil mining and other industries is linked to reduced rainfall, which in turn could accelerate the demise of the rainforest.

And the decline of the Amazon could have global repercussions, as the forest serves as a crucial carbon sink, capable of absorbing carbon emissions from the atmosphere.

But ahead of Sunday’s vote, supporters of drilling warned that a ban would damage Ecuador’s economy, which relies heavily on oil extraction.

Energy Minister Fernando Santos told Al Jazeera this month that ending the drilling would “result in a loss of $1.2bn annually, which would be detrimental to the country’s economy”.

But activists celebrated Sunday’s vote as a victory for Indigenous and environmental protections.

“Today Ecuador takes a giant step to protect life, biodiversity, and Indigenous people,” the country’s two main Indigenous groups, CONFENIAE and CONAIE, said in a joint social media post.

The referendum garnered support from global celebrities, including actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who said the vote could set an “example” for democratising climate policies.

“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 this month.

Nenquimo added that the vote would be “a day we will remember as the day the planet started to win, and corrupt politicians and oil companies lost”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies