Parque Nacional Yasuní (PNY) is a national park in the far east of Ecuador and occupies an area of just over 9,800 square kilometres. The park lies within the Napo moist forest ecoregion and comprises mostly rainforest. The park is at the centre of a small zone where amphibian, bird, mammal and vascular plant diversity all reach their maximum levels within the western hemisphere and is arguably one of the most biologically diverse spots on the planet. The Park is underlain by an estimated 1.7 billion barrels of crude oil – 40 percent of Ecuador’s reserves – in the Ishpingo-Tiputini-Tambococha (ITT) oil fields1.
In tandem with a presidential election, Ecuadorians have voted in a referendum to halt the development of all new oil wells in the park. About 58.9% voted in favour of protecting the park while 41% voted against. At a time when the climate crisis is intensifying around the world and the Amazon rainforest is fast approaching, or has passed, an irreversible tipping point, Ecuador has become one of the first countries in the world to set limits on resource extraction through a democratic vote2.
Pedro Bermeo, founding member of Yasunidos, an activist group that, in 2013, gathered almost 750,000 signatures in petitioning for the referendum3, said the vote showed that the “greatest national consensus at this time is in the defence of nature, the defence of Indigenous peoples and nationalities, the defence of life”, but he warned: “The fight isn’t over. Even if politicians separate us, nature unites us, and we will work together to ensure the government complies with the will of Ecuadorian people”2. This ‘consultation’ was blocked by successive governments for a decade until finally, in May 2023, the Constitutional Court issued a ruling in favour of holding the referendum3.
The government has already started backpedalling away from the result. The country’s energy and mines minister Fernando Santos Alvite told local media on Wednesday (23 August) that the government would continue oil drilling activities as usual, arguing that, according to the constitution, only people living in the vicinity can decide if any exploitation project can start or stop. In Orellana, the province where the ITT oilfieldis located, 42 per cent were in favour of stopping oil drilling, with 58 percent against. This is the result the government has taken as a basis to reject the overall referendum result. However, the results as they stand, backed by the Constitutional Court, should oblige the Ecuadorian government to prohibit any new oil exploitation contracts3.
The two candidates in the presidential election runoff, to be held on October 15, will be pressured to respect the referendum result. The front runner in the presidential election is Luisa Gonzalez of the Citizen Revolution Movement, who came out on top in the first round of voting with 33.3%, while Daniel Noboa, the son of a millionaire banana magnate won 23.7% of the vote4.
There is no guarantee that whoever is elected president in October will follow the will of the people as expressed by the result of the referendum. It is quite likely that whoever is voted in will try to weasel out of stopping new wells in the national park. This is what the world faces in microcosm. The people know that in the relatively short term there can be no more burning of fossil fuels or we will face catastrophe (more on this elsewhere). However, because politicians in many countries have been bribed by fossil fuel corporations to largely continue business as usual, sufficient action to prevent this catastrophe will not be undertaken by politicians under the current system. We need to make sure that the system changes so we can avoid that catastrophe.