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Energy

Ecuadorians Vote to Preserve Yasuní National Park, but Implementation Is the Problem

Oil workers are busy on the banks of the Tiputini river, on the northern border of the Yasuní National Park, in Ecuador's Amazon region. CREDIT: Pato Chavez / Flickr

Oil workers are busy on the banks of the Tiputini river, on the northern border of the Yasuní National Park, in Ecuador's Amazon region. CREDIT: Pato Chavez / Flickr

QUITO, Oct 9 2023 (IPS) - The decision reached by Ecuadorians to put an end to oil production in Yasuní National Park, in a popular referendum in August, was a triumph for civil society and a global milestone in environmental democracy. But when it comes to implementation, the result is less promising.

Despite being a democratic decision, taken by the majority of Ecuadorians, who voted to halt oil exploration and production in the park, the authorities say the verdict is not clear.

"The referendum process sets a precedent because it is a way of establishing what is called an environmental democracy, where the people decide what to exploit and what not to exploit. These principles in practice are in harmony with the rights of nature that are mentioned in the Ecuadorian constitution, to protect nature above and beyond economic profit." -- Ximena Ron Erráez

During the Aug. 20 presidential and legislative elections, 59 percent of voters voted Yes to a halt to oil extraction in one of the most biodiverse protected areas in the world, part of the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest that has been a biosphere reserve since 1989.

At the same time, 68 percent of the voters of the Metropolitan District of Quito voted against continued mining in their territory, in order to protect the biodiversity of the Chocó Andino, a forest northwest of the capital that provides it with water.

In the midst of an unprecedented political and criminal insecurity crisis in Ecuador, the two votes were a historic landmark at a democratic and environmental level, in addition to demonstrating that Ecuadorians are increasingly looking towards alternatives that would move Ecuador away from the extractivism on which the economy of this South American country has depended for decades.

But the No vote, i.e. the answer that allowed oil extraction to continue in the Yasuní ITT block, won in the provinces where the national park is located: Orellana and Sucumbíos. This is one of the arguments of the current authorities to stop compliance with the referendum, arguing that the areas involved want oil production to go ahead.

Constitutional lawyer Ximena Ron Erráez said the Ecuadorian government cannot escape the obligation to abide by the result of the referendum.

“As far as the Ecuadorian constitution is concerned…..it must be complied with in an obligatory manner by the authorities; there is no possibility, constitutionally speaking, that the authorities can refuse to comply with the results of the referendum,” she told IPS.

One of the murals that still remain on the streets of Quito from the campaign for the August referendum on whether or not to keep the oil wealth underground in Yasuní National Park, to which voters decided "yes": leave it untouched. CREDIT: Carolina Loza / IPSOne of the murals that still remain on the streets of Quito from the campaign for the August referendum on whether or not to keep the oil wealth underground in Yasuní National Park, to which voters decided "yes": leave it untouched. CREDIT: Carolina Loza / IPS

One of the murals that still remain on the streets of Quito from the campaign for the August referendum on whether or not to keep the oil wealth underground in Yasuní National Park, to which voters decided “yes”: leave it untouched. CREDIT: Carolina Loza / IPS

Ron Erráez also complained about a lack of political will.

On Sept. 5, Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso, in a meeting with indigenous communities, described the referendum as “not applicable”.

A leaked video in which he made the statement drew an outcry from civil society groups that pushed for the referendum for more than 10 years. Yasunidos, the group that was formed to reverse the 2013 decision by the government of then President Rafael Correa (2007-2017) to begin oil drilling and production in Yasuní, has declared itself in a state of permanent assembly.

The Correa administration had proposed a project that sought to keep the oil in Yasuní ITT (Ishpingo, Tambococha, Tiputini), also known as Block 43, in the ground, on almost 2,000 hectares, part of which is within the biosphere reserve and the rest in the so-called buffer zone.

The initiative consisted of asking for international economic compensation for not exploiting the oilfield, which contains more than 1.5 billion barrels of reserves, in order to continue to preserve the biodiversity of the park and its surrounding areas. But the proposal did not yield the hoped-for results in international financing and the government decided to cancel it.

This is despite the fact that Yasuní, covering an area of 10,700 square kilometers in the northeast of the country within the Amazon basin, is home to some 150 species of amphibians, 600 species of birds and 3,000 species of flora, as well as indigenous communities, some of which are in voluntary isolation.

Environmental activists and organizations working in favor of keeping Yasuní’s oil in the ground say the management of the project showed the dilemma of finding alternatives to the extractive industry and the lack of real political will on the part of the political powers-that-be to come up with solutions.

View of one of the rivers inside the Yasuni park, in northeastern Ecuador, which preserves an incomparable biodiversity. CREDIT: Manel Ortega Fernández / Flickr

View of one of the rivers inside the Yasuni park, in northeastern Ecuador, which preserves an incomparable biodiversity. CREDIT: Manel Ortega Fernández / Flickr

Ron Erráez mentioned an important fact: Lasso, in power since May 2021, will be an outgoing president after the second round of presidential elections is held on Oct. 15, and it will be his successor who will have to fulfill the mandate of the referendum on the national park.

One difficulty is that his successor, who will take office on Nov. 25, will only serve as president for a year and a half, to complete the term of Lasso, who called for an unprecedented early election to avoid his likely impeachment by the legislature.

Alex Samaniego, who participates in Yasunídos from Scientist Rebellion Ecuador, said it was clear from the start that the campaign for the Yasuní and Andean Chocó referendums was a long-term process, which would not end with whatever result came out of the vote.

“We know that we have to defend the result, defend the votes of the citizens and make sure that the referendums are fully complied with,” he told IPS.

According to the environmental activist, the democratic process behind the referendums will serve as an example for many countries, including Brazil, where communities are waging a constant struggle to combat climate change by seeking alternatives to the extractive industries.

Capture from a video of the Quito Free of Mining campaign, which triumphed in the popular referendum on Aug. 20. CREDIT: Carolina Loza / IPS

Capture from a video of the Quito Free of Mining campaign, which triumphed in the popular referendum on Aug. 20. CREDIT: Carolina Loza / IPS

“We are told about all the money that oil brings to the economy, but very little money stays in the communities,” said Samaniego, who mentioned alternatives such as community-based tourism and biomedicine and bioindustries as economic alternatives to oil production.

Ron Erráez said “the referendum process sets a precedent because it is a way of establishing what is called an environmental democracy, where the people decide what to exploit and what not to exploit.”

“These principles in practice are in harmony with the rights of nature that are mentioned in the Ecuadorian constitution, to protect nature above and beyond economic profit,” she added.

Ecuadorian voters decided at the ballot box, and their decision should accelerate the possibility of a transition to alternatives for their economy. But what will the implementation look like?

The referendum on the Andean Chocó region covers a conservation area of which Quito is part, which includes nine protected forests and more than 35 natural reserves, in order to avoid the issuance of mining exploration permits, a measure that will be implemented after the vote.

There are contrasting views over the halt to oil exploration and production in Yasuni. The state-owned oil company Petroecuador highlights the losses for the State and presents figures that question the studies of groups such as Yasunidos.

The referendum gives the government one year to bring oil production activities to a halt. But Ron Erráez said it could take longer to dismantle Petroecuador’s entire operation in Yasuní ITT. Meanwhile, operations in Block 43 continue.

Sofia Torres, spokesperson for Yasunidos, said that despite all the talk during the campaign about economic losses, the vote showed that a majority of Ecuadorians question the country’s extractivist industry status quo.

In her view, although government and oil authorities insist that oil resources are indispensable for the country’s development, Ecuadorians have not seen this materialize in terms of infrastructure, social measures or services.

For this reason, they decided that “it is better to opt for the preservation of something concrete, such as an ecosystem that provides us with clean water and clean air and that is something like an insurance policy for the future,” she told IPS.

On Oct. 15, Ecuadorians will choose between left-leaning Luisa Gonzalez, the protegé of former President Correa, and businessman Daniel Noboa. It will fall to one of them to enforce the majority vote on the future of Yasuní and the halt to oil industry activity in the park.

 
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