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Ecuador oil drilling referendum a victory for biodiversity

The oil ban is the ecological way forward—and the popular one

EnvironmentIndigenous PoliticsLatin America and the Caribbean

On August 20, 2023, Ecuadorians voted overwhelmingly to stop oil drilling in the Amazon’s Yasuní National Park (pictured here) by a margin of nearly 20 percent. Photo by Paul Bertner/Minden Picture.

August 20 was a busy day for Ecuadorians. The general election narrowed the field of presidential candidates to Luisa González of the left-wing Citizen Revolution and the right-wing millionaire Daniel Noboa, with González in the lead, having received about 34 percent of the vote to Noboa’s 23 percent.

Ecuador also held two major referenda, one regional and one national. The results of all three votes indicate an overwhelming preference for environmental preservation over the expansion of mineral and oil extraction—as well as the nation’s desire to move away from the right-wing, pro-business policies of President Guillermo Lasso, who is not running for re-election. They also represent a huge victory for the country’s Indigenous movements, which have pressured Lasso to temper his neoliberal, extractivist policies throughout his tenure.

The regional referendum concerned mining in the Choco Andino forest near Quito, a reserve of “jaw-dropping biological diversity” including the spectacled bear and the cock-of-the-rock. On the question of whether to allow mineral extraction in the forest, an overwhelming 68 percent of voters rejected the expansion of mining into Choco Andino.

The referendum is a blow to the Lasso government, which has been promoting the mining industry over the past several years despite national protests. The results are also likely worrisome for the Canadian government, as Ottawa has been trying to seal a free trade agreement (FTA) with Ecuador that would greatly empower Canadian mining companies while weakening the Ecuadorian government’s ability to increase taxes and royalties or introduce new environmental regulations.

The national referendum dealt with exploration in Yasuní National Park, specifically an oil-rich area on the park’s eastern edge dubbed “Block 43,” which includes the oil fields of Ishpingo, Tambococha and Tiputini.

The question of oil exploration in Yasuní, an area of remarkable biodiversity, has been debated for years, and the referendum was only brought forward after extensive campaigning by environmental activists and local Indigenous peoples:

One hectare of Yasuní purportedly contains more animal species than all of Europe and around 650 species of trees—more tree species than exist in all of North America. It is also home to Indigenous communities, including two Indigenous communities in voluntary isolation, who have fought for their right to remain living in their ancestral lands. But under this park also lies Ecuador’s largest reserve of crude oil, setting up a decades-long tension between environmental conservation, Indigenous rights, and economic development in Ecuador… After a decade of campaigning by environmental activists, the Ecuadorian Constitutional Court has approved a popular consultation petition filed by the environmental collective Yasunidos, and on 20 August 2023, the momentous decision of whether to continue oil exploitation in Block 43 of Yasuní National Park will be decided by the people.


The results were decisive: fifty-nine percent of Ecuadorians rejected oil drilling. Not only is future oil exploration in Block 43 banned, but present operations will need to be dismantled. This is despite the fact that Lasso—whose approval ratings are as low as 12 to 14 percent—issued a decree in July 2021 to increase oil production.

In August, Lasso reiterated his pro-industry position, stating, “There are old oil fields that need to be made more productive and new fields as well. The oil frontier could be expanded.” His energy minister has said, “We have a lot of hope for the Ishpingo field [in Block 43].”

Residents carry a banner reading “Quito without mining” during a protest against extractive industrial activity in the Choco Andino forest, October 24, 2022. Photo courtesy Quito Without Mining.

Prior to the Yasuní referendum, Lasso was pursuing his pro-oil policies in a highly antidemocratic fashion, pushing ahead with plans to extract oil from Block 43 despite the fact that his government is rejected by almost 90 percent of Ecuadorians. By contrast, the Yasuní referendum, which was finally implemented after a decade of public campaigning, shows that the oil ban is both the ecological way forward and the popular one.

Following the referendum, a leader of the Waorani tribe, Nemo Guiquita, said, “Ecuadorians have come together… to provide a life opportunity for our Indigenous brothers and sisters and also to show the entire world, amidst these challenging times of climate change, that we stand in support of the rainforest.” She added: “We hope that with this public consultation, there will be a path marked by the fact that the decision belongs to the people and that we can remove all those who are extracting oil and polluting our land.”

When put to public referendum, Lasso’s agenda has been continuously rebuffed by Ecuadorians. In February of this year, Lasso introduced an eight-question referendum as part of that month’s local elections. The goal was to modify the country’s constitution, a document ratified and implemented in 2008 under leftist former President Rafael Correa. Among other things, Lasso hoped to legalize the extradition of Ecuadorians charged with felonies related to international organized crime, grant autonomy to the state attorney general’s office, and reduce the size of the National Assembly.

In the February referendum, Ecuadorians answered “no” to every single question. As Sebastián Hurtado explains: “The questions [were] carefully designed to generate the least resistance from the public and secure a political win that [could] be presented as a renewed mandate for the Lasso administration, providing him with some political breathing room.” Instead, the result was another public rejection of the Lasso administration, which nonetheless retained the fervent support of the US and Canada.

The October 15 runoff augurs well for Luisa González and the left. Meanwhile, Ecuador’s decision to value environmental protection and biodiversity over extractivism is a positive development for the continent, whose ecological integrity has been under attack by right-wing governments and their foreign backers in recent years.

Owen Schalk is a writer from Manitoba. His book on Canada’s role in the war in Afghanistan will be released by Lorimer in September. You can preorder it here. To see more of his work, visit www.owenschalk.com.

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