Ecuador to halt oil drilling in Amazon reserve after historic vote

Latin America & Caribbean AP - Dolores Ochoa
AP - Dolores Ochoa

Ecuadorans have voted to stop an oil drilling project in an Amazon reserve, according to the results of a referendum hailed as an historic example of climate democracy.

Almost 59 percent of voters chose to halt the exploitation of an oil block in Yasuni National Park, one of the most diverse biospheres in the world.

"This is a historic victory for Ecuador and the planet," environmental group Yasunidos posted on social media.

"This consultation, born from citizens, shows great national consensus in Ecuador. It is the first time a country has decided to protect life and leave oil in the ground."

Ecuador is one of eight nations sharing the Amazon basin, a vital carbon sink facing widespread destruction at a time when the world is grappling to curb climate change.

Political tension

Sunday's referendum took place alongside a first-round presidential election held under heavy security, with an explosion of violence linked to the drug trade dominating voter concerns.

The result came despite "unfavourable" conditions, analyst Andrès Jaramillo says, citing the assassination of one of the presidential candidates 10 days ago as a destablising factor.

"The electoral campaign overshadowed the debate around the non-exploitation of oil and mining in Yasuni and Choco Andes. But we still have the opportunity to discuss the consequences of this victory, what it means to move away from extra-activism and to think of an Ecuador whose future resources will not be limited in time," he told RFI.

The national oil company Petroecuador indicated on Monday in a press release that it would comply with the "sovereign decision" of the Ecuadorians.

Profits and pollution

After years of demands for a referendum, the country's highest court authorized the vote in May to decide the fate of "block 43," which contributes 12 percent of the 466,000 barrels of oil per day produced by Ecuador.

The block is situated in a reserve which stretches over one million hectares (2.5 million acres) and is home to three of the world's last uncontacted Indigenous populations and a bounty of plant and animal species.

But locals in Yasuni were divided, with some supporting the oil companies and the benefits that economic growth have brought to their villages.

The government of outgoing President Guillermo Lasso estimated a loss of $16 billion over the next 20 years if drilling were halted.

Voters also chose to ban mining in parts of the Choco Andes forest in a second referendum.

Oil exploitation has been one of the pillars of Ecuador's economy since the 1970s.

Crude oil, its leading export, generated revenues of $10 billion in 2022, around 10 percent of gross domestic product.

Nearly 500,000 barrels are produced daily in the northeastern Amazon, below the Andes, blighting the environment with wells, pipelines, and flames shooting into the air.

Lungs of the earth

Yvonne Ramos of the NGO Ecological Action welcomed the referendum results.

"We have bet on life and the rights of nature, the rights of local communities. It is a fundamental step to avoid this climate crisis which threatens the lives of all through climate change," she told RFI.

Rainforests are often called the "lungs of the Earth," soaking up planet-warming carbon dioxide and expelling life-giving oxygen. Their protection is crucial in the battle to combat climate change.

Scientists warn destruction of the Amazon is pushing the world's biggest rainforest close to a tipping point beyond which trees would die off and release carbon rather than absorb it, with catastrophic consequences for the climate.

(with AFP)