Indigenous activists with banners in Yasuni National Park

Indigenous activists from the Siona, Siekopai, Chuar, Waorani, and Kofann nations stand in Yasuni National Park, Ecuador, and hold up a banner reading “Yes to Yasuni” in Spanish.

(Photo: Martin Kingman)

Can Climate Democracy Defeat the Oil Curse in Ecuador?

As the country faces economic and security crises, the oil industry and its supporters in government are pushing to disregard the vote to indefinitely stop drilling in Yasuni National Park.

On the far eastern tip of Ecuador, stretching deep into the Amazon, some 10,000 square miles of rainforest lie at the heart of a global struggle.

The area, known as the Yasuní National Park, is one of the most biodiverse territories on Earth, with more than 120 documented species of reptile, 596 bird species, and 382 fish species. In one hectare of the Yasuní, there are more than 100,000 species of insects, similar to the amount found in all of North America. There are an estimated 117 species of bats. The park holds multiple world records for numbers of different tree species. And living high in the canopy of those trees one can find such marvelous creatures as the Ecuadorian white-fronted capuchin, the red-crowned titi, the Colombian red howler, and the white-bellied spider monkey.

Yasuní is also the ancestral home of the Waorani people and the current home of the Tagaeri and Taromenane peoples, some of the last people living in voluntary isolation across the Amazon. In the age of private jets, “smartphones,” and artificial intelligence, the Tagaeri and Taromenane—having survived centuries of invasion, disease, and encroachment—continue to choose a hunter-harvester existence. Yasuní is one of the last places on Earth where they can still do so.

The Yasuní struggle shows that people can come together using the tools of democracy to alter the course of environmental destruction and offers some hope of mitigating the worst impacts of climate change.

Designated a national park in 1979 and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1989, Yasuní is a unique place on planet Earth, and for millions of people across Ecuador, it recently came to symbolize a dream of a better world.

For years, Yasuní has been under the ax of the oil industry. But on August 20, 2023, after a decade of struggle, Ecuadorian voters decided in a referendum to indefinitely keep all the remaining oil in the ground under the nearly 1 million hectares of Yasuní National Park. Nearly 60% of voters nationwide chose to value one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet over the price of some estimated 726 million barrels of oil lying deep beneath the forest floor. (In the same elections, some 2 million voters in Quito chose to ban all mining in the Andean Chocó forest.)

Indigenous people, environmentalists, students and youth groups, lawyers, and activists all came together to fight the oil industry. And they won. “For the first time anywhere, a nation-wide referendum achieved a moratorium to both halt new and roll back existing fossil fuel operations,” wrote Antonia Juhasz, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of The Tyranny of Oil. Never before had the people of an entire country used the instruments of direct democracy to put a limit on oil drilling and protect a forest and the myriad, interconnected forms of life that depend upon that forest from being destroyed in the name of “development” or “progress.”

This victory offers a model and alternative to fossil fuel addictions pushing our climate and societies to the edge of a dangerous precipice. The Yasuní struggle shows that people can come together using the tools of democracy to alter the course of environmental destruction and offers some hope of mitigating the worst impacts of climate change.

“Yasuní is an unparalleled place,” said Esperanza Martínez, a member and founder of Acción Ecológica and Oil Watch, in a recent interview with Amazon Frontlines. “It is a scene of utopia, enabling us to question the oil development model, and to do something about it.”

But now, as Ecuador faces economic and security crises, the oil industry and its supporters in government are pushing to disregard the vote. It seems as if the people will have to fight again, even though they already won. How could this happen?

The Oil Curse

Texaco discovered oil in the Amazon in 1967 and began production in 1972. The price of oil sky-rocketed in the 1970s. Ecuador’s military dictatorship joined the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in 1973, betting on oil to industrialize what was then a small, agrarian country. As oil prices began to drop in the 1980s, successive governments continued to spend, borrowing money on the basis of future oil profits. By 1982, Ecuador’s debt reached 60% of its gross domestic product. The ruling class, however, continued to push for oil exploration and development while implementing austerity programs to cut government spending.

Texaco was the main oil company operating in Ecuador between 1964 and 1992, when it closed its facilities and left the country. Texaco treated the Amazon like a trash dump, leaving a legacy of environmental, human, and social ruin that has been called the “Amazon Chernobyl.” Six indigenous nations and 80 affected communities sued Texaco in 1993 for the damage they suffered. Almost 20 years later, a judge in a provincial court in Ecuador awarded the plaintiffs $9.6 billion dollars. Chevron, having purchased Texaco in 2001, refused to pay and then counter-sued the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Steven Donziger, in New York. Thousands of people affected by Texaco’s contamination have yet to see a penny from Chevron.

Oil was supposed to be the beacon of hope. Or at least that’s what the military dictators and subsequent neoliberal politicians claimed. Instead, the oil curse in Ecuador ensnared the country in a cycle of debt and poverty, corruption, and a despoiled environment.

This is the paradox of the oil curse: poverty alleviation is used to justify the oil policies and pumping that create and deepen poverty.

“Oil has not brought solutions to the Amazon,” said Nemonte Nenquimo, a Waorani leader and co-founder of the Ceibo Alliance and Amazon Frontlines. “When they found oil in our forests they said it would solve the problem of poverty. But it was never a solution. It brought destruction and contamination.

Oil was presented as a classic panacea. It quickly became a curse. The two top oil producing provinces in Ecuador, Sucumbíos and Orellana, now also have some of the highest poverty rates in the country. Poverty arrived with oil. Like environmental contamination, poverty is a creation of industrial civilizations. The Waorani, for example, were not poor before oil. They lived rich, complex, healthy lives in the forest. Many still do. Those who were displaced by oil development, those whose hunting grounds were destroyed by oil contamination, now swell the ranks of the nation’s poor.

But the curse did not only affect the Cofán families whose children died after bathing in contaminated rivers, the families who lost loved ones to cancer, or the Cofán and Waorani communities that lost their land, their homes, their ways of life. The nation’s political leaders drove the country into debt and destitution by mortgaging the future on the economic success of oil, a success that never materialized.

“We Won”

Limited oil drilling in Yasuní began in the 1970s. Decades later, Martínez and Acción Ecológica appealed to the Ecuadorian State to protect the territory. In 2007, then-President Rafael Correa launched an initiative calling on the global community to pay Ecuador half of the estimated future revenues from full exploitation of the region’s oil, about $3.5 billion, to leave the area undeveloped. For six years, Correa promoted this initiative as an example of global climate justice, though his government negotiators acted more like brokers than defenders of nature. Then, impatient with the lack of funding, Correa ditched the initiative.

In 2013, Correa said that the world had failed Ecuador and that he had no choice but to drill. Correa, a populist who positioned himself with Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia, came to fully embrace the idea of oil-as-progress and financed oil drilling in the Amazon with loaned funds from the Chinese government. He declared the drilling to be “in the national interest” to circumvent the existing prohibitions against drilling in the park.

“The phrase he’d say, and that would be repeated by his ministers as well as officials in subsequent administrations, was that we are starving to death while sitting on a gold mine,” said Amazon Frontlines attorney Jorce Acero. “They used that phrase against Yasuní, and they’ve used it a lot in Ecuador to support mining.”

Across the world, people saw this unprecedented victory as a watershed moment for the struggles of the global climate justice movement to come.

This is the paradox of the oil curse: poverty alleviation is used to justify the oil policies and pumping that create and deepen poverty. Correa, after years of distancing himself from the ideologies and discourses of his predecessors, followed faithfully in their oil-drenched footsteps.

Correa’s shift led Martínez, Acción Ecológica, and scores of others to create a broad coalition of Indigenous, environmental, and activist organizations, collectives, and individuals that would come to be known as Yasunidos (or, roughly, united for Yasuní). Over the course of a few months, Yasunidos took to the streets and gathered more than750,000 signatures in support of the national referendum to prevent oil drilling in Yasuni, exceeding the legal requirement by 172,000 signatures.

But Ecuador’s politically controlled election authority initially rejected the petition for the referendum after the delivery of the signatures in 2014. An independent investigation later stated that: “For two weeks the National Electoral Council (CNE) carried out a verification process that was designed from the beginning to disqualify the largest number of signatures in the shortest time possible and deny the petitioners any chance of appealing.” Just two years later, in 2016, Petroecuador began operations in Yasuni in Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) block 43, the untouched home to the Tagaeri and Taromenane people and tens of thousands of plant and animal species.

Yasunidos sued and, after years of litigation, won. In 2022, the electoral authority finally sent the proposed ballot question—“Do you agree with the Ecuadorian government to keep the ITT crude oil, known as Block 43, indefinitely underground?”—to Ecuador’s Constitutional Court. In May 2023, the court finally approved the question for the ballot for the elections, despite renewed attempts from the government to thwart Yasunidos.

Yasunidos was now faced with a once in a lifetime opportunity to build mass public support and began organizing on multiple fronts, through marches, events, and media campaigns that attracted attention and solidarity all over the country and across the world.

The Yasuní victory is significant not only because of the protection it guarantees for one of the most biodiverse places on Earth and the people who live there, but also because it shows how an entire nation came to realize after half a century, oil isn’t what it claimed to be. Joining those so devastatingly and immediately impacted by the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, the majority of the population came together to say no more: It’s time to keep the oil in the ground; the oil economy does not generate wealth and well-being; let’s dream and build together alternatives and a just future, where our planet’s biodiverse treasures are protected! And across the world, people saw this unprecedented victory as a watershed moment for the struggles of the global climate justice movement to come.

The ruling by the top court requires the state oil company to refrain from signing any new contracts, to cease pumping, dismantle all production and transport facilities, and completely withdraw from ITT block 43 within a year of the vote. The government must also carry out remediation and reforestation programs to return the area, as much as possible, to how it was before the engineers and construction crews arrived.

Eight months after the vote, however, the government has done none of this.

The Crisis

Just a few months after the Ecuadorian people voted to protect Yasuni, 35-year-old banana scion Daniel Noboa took office and became the youngest president in the country’s history. During the presidential campaign, and in contrast to the favored candidates, supporting the referendum and saying “yes” to protecting Yasuní was part of Noboa’s campaign. And just days before the elections, he told a journalist that, “any democratic person should respect the will of the people and that is what we will do.”

Then, in January 2024, to the dismay of many, Noboa reversed his initial stance and put forward the possibility of a moratorium on complying with the referendum. “This is very sad. Not only do we have to win the election, but now we have to defend the results,” said Pedro Bermeo, environmental lawyer and spokesperson for Yasunidos, in a recent interview with Amazon Frontlines. “We won a national ballot initiative. There is a concrete result that any supporter of liberal democracy around the world would have to respect whether they are in favor or not, whether they voted for it or not. But the political parties, the elites, and the economic experts all come out to say, with no shame, that the results of the vote should not be enforced.”

Much has changed in Ecuador, however, between the referendum and Noboa’s call for a moratorium. Many, in fact, might empathize with Noboa’s position. Noboa came to power during an unprecedented spike of drug-related violence across the country. After several years of increasing cocaine transport, rising murder rates, and deadly prison riots in the country, the 2023 presidential elections marked a new alarming chapter for Ecuadorian history—three politicians were gunned down in broad daylight in the space of one month, including presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio, who stood at the forefront of Ecuador's anti-corruption struggle.

Yes, we won, and now we have to win the win.

The unfolding crisis then catapulted to new heights on January 9, 2024 when a series of prison escapes and riots, murders, and kidnappings—which included a group of skinny young men in t-shirts and jeans storming a live television broadcast with pistols, shotguns, machetes, and shanks: the armed men were promptly overtaken by state forces—shocked the nation and grabbed headlines worldwide. Almost immediately, Noboa declared an “internal armed conflict,” allowing the armed forces to take to the streets. Some six weeks after his inauguration, Noboa became, by his own declaration, a wartime president: “In practical terms we are in a war against terrorism,” he said.

The wave of violence gripping Ecuador may seem unrelated to the 2023 Yasuní referendum. It may seem just like bad timing or bad luck that the world’s first act of nationwide electoral democracy to protect an invaluable territory within the Amazon rainforest from oil drilling and the world’s first act of what could be called national climate democracy should come at a time of war. But it didn’t. Or, not in the way it may seem.

In 2018, Ecuador had one of the lowest murder rates in Latin America. By 2023 it had the highest. The violence–murders, massacres, bodies hung from bridges–is all too real. But it is not a conventional war, and will not be addressed with militarization and war rhetoric.

Daniel Noboa has cited Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele as an inspiration. Like Bukele, Noboa brags of mass arrests and plans to build new mega-prisons. Images of half-naked, incarcerated men lying face down between masked soldiers and police, strikingly similar to those from El Salvador, have been a part of his government’s early war imagery. Soldiers and police film and share short videos of all kindsof abuse online. Ecuador’s new president calls all this the “Noboa way.” And it is very dangerous.

“Looking at social media posts from Ecuador over the past weeks,” said Jorge Acero, “you can see the flourishing of what I would call fascist comments. The army will go out and arrest five men, and people will comment that it’s too bad they arrested them, the soldiers should have shot them dead right there. When images circulate of young men in custody who look beaten up, someone will comment that the government shouldn’t act like criminals, that basic rights and due process must be followed. Then there will be a flood of responses about defending terrorists and how the authorities should have beaten them harder. This is the social context we’re in now.”

Noboa will be up for reelection in 2025, and again in 2029. And he is in a bind. His first term will last barely long enough to serve as a pre-campaign drive, and the country is spiraling. The economy is collapsing, poverty increasing, and the International Monetary Fund imposes austerity programs as it demands its debt payments. In this context, Noboa has forgiven $7 billion of past tax debt for Ecuador’s wealthiest, while trying to raise taxes on everyday citizens. He appears to be desperate for cash. This is a dangerous situation for a small nation in the eyes of the global cocaine industry.

Noboa appears to have two options for disregarding the results of the referendum and continuing to drill in Yasuní, which harbors an approximate 40% of the country’s remaining oil reserves. On the one hand, he could ignore the issue altogether and just keep drilling. This would open a legal pathway for Ecuador’s top court to impeach him and order his removal from office. He could ask the military to protect him, appealing to national security to justify violating the court order. On the other hand, he could demand that the court issue a moratorium on compliance. Such a moratorium is unconstitutional. To issue it would be to violate the law and the democratic principles of ballot initiatives and national elections. Either option would be devastating.

And while Noboa did not try to put the Yasuní question up for a second referendum as some feared, he continues to call for a “moratorium.”

“That would be completely illegal,” said Bermeo from Yasunidos, “and it would have to pass to the Constitutional Court so that the court could modify its resolution. But the resolution has already been made law, it already went through the national electoral process and has been enshrined, so to speak, in the vote. For the court to make a change it would violate the will of the people. It would be extremely difficult for the court to do that. But, you know, anything is possible in Ecuador. So we have to be alert and prepared with a legal strategy were that to happen.”

Meanwhile, throughout 2023 and up to February 2024, Petroecuador continued to drill new wells and pump oil in Yasuní, withdrawing some 55,000 barrels a day. Every day further endangers the forest and the people who call it home.

Climate Democracy

Most people now both know and acknowledge that we are no longer facing a climate disaster, but in the midst of the disaster. There are so few examples of powerful victories and solutions, and Yasuní is one of them: After a decade of grassroots organizing, the people of Ecuador united to stop oil destruction in the heart of the western Amazon.

This is a story of the Tagaeri and Taromenane peoples living in voluntary isolation in Yasuní, one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, being allowed to continue living, to avoid having their home, language, culture, and ways of life annihilated. It is a story of Indigenous communities and environmental activists and students and lawyers and citizens from across the country all coming together to protect this place and provide a model of climate justice. And yet, almost as quickly as the news and inspiration of the Yasuní victory traveled across the world, the threat arrived. Yasuní, and the planet’s climate, stand in the balance. Yes, we won, and now we have to win the win.

“I think that since we’re so used to protesting and because so many horrible things happen, sometimes we conceal our victory,” said Esperanza Martínez from Acción Ecológica. “I think that whatever we say should start with the fact that we already won. The people already decided that Yasuní should be conserved. We shouldn’t anticipate betrayal. Because when one anticipates betrayal they start to normalize it and create the conditions for thinking we lost. I don’t think this struggle is lost.”

“We have to keep resisting,” said Nemonte Nenquimo, “our children and our grandchildren need their territory. Without it, they’ll lose their language, they won’t be Waorani anymore. And think of the Tagaeri and the Taromenani: it is their territory, their space, their home, and they need respect. We already won! The Ecuadorian government must respect the results of the elections.”

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