Ecuadorians Choose Life Over Fossil Fuels


Raina Chinitz

August 31, 2023

On August 20th, I checked my phone every few minutes as the results of Ecuador’s national elections began coming online, anxiously waiting to see what the Ecuadorian people chose for the fate of one of the most biodiverse places in the world: Yasuní National Park.

The referendum gave Ecuador’s citizens the power to decide whether or not to close an oil block in Yasuní, called Block 43 or Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT), which has been active since 2016. 

I am not Ecuadorian, but I’ve been living in Ecuador for the past two years, immersed in the culture and everyday reality of the people here, from the coast to the Amazon and even in the Galapagos. While I live on the coast, I work closely with people in Sani Isla, a Kichwa community and one of our oldest partners, which lies partly within the boundaries of Yasuní  National Park. The community has and continues to protect the beautiful and diverse primary forest on their ancestral land.

Visiting Sani Isla is like stepping into a nature documentary: from the floor to the canopy, the forest feels alive, buzzing and humming with sound, movement and life. From the top of the “Mother Tree,” a towering Ceibo tree with vast views above the canopy, in every direction there is forest stretching out as far as you can see. The forest feels endless, untouched and untouchable.

This, of course, is not the case. While traveling in the region, we drive through vast palm oil plantations, passing gas flares and miles and miles of oil pipelines, new roads and expanding development eating away at the vast green expanse that from Yasuní  feels so endless. 

A true grassroots victory

A few days before the vote, I was talking to a cousin-in-law who lives in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city. She said she first learned of the Yasuní  referendum while scrolling on Instagram, and was shocked that the issue was not as much of a major topic of conversation and debate in the coastal region, as it was in the Andes and Amazon regions of Ecuador.

She started discussing the upcoming vote with everyone she knew –  family, friends, even classmates and coworkers – spreading the word about the rare and extraordinary opportunity they had to protect their country’s natural wealth and prevent further destruction and injustices on indigenous land. 

For many who were aware of the vote, there was a lot of pressure from a government and fossil fuel industry campaign to convince citizens to vote “no,” which would allow continued exploitation of Block 43 in Yasuní. From the radio to ads popping up on Youtube, people were encouraged to vote “no.” 

Though I couldn’t cast my own vote, I also talked about it with anyone I could. Knowing the government’s dependence on oil exportation and the long history of the fossil fuel industry’s suppression of grassroots organizations, in particular those of indigenous groups organizing against extraction on their lands, I wasn’t optimistic. 

But I was wonderfully wrong. On August 20th, Ecuadorians sent a historic message heard around the world, voting to stop oil extraction in a critical area globally renowned for its incredible biodiversity.

The Ecuadorian people, despite living in a particularly difficult moment in the country’s history, with a struggling economy and violence and crime crisis, voted to stop oil extraction in Block 43-ITT in Yasuní . 

Millions of people from the coast to the Andes, Amazon and the Galapagos Islands voted to keep Yasuní’s oil in the ground, sending a message to the fossil fuel industry and to governments around the world that people want a future that is no longer dependent on extraction and deforestation– and that they are willing to organize for that future. 

This victory belongs not only to the millions of citizens who voted, but is thanks to the tireless, courageous organizing of indigenous people, non-indigenous supporters, and activists who fought for years just to get the referendum on the ballot. It is a moving and historic illustration of just how powerful grassroots movements can be.

“I often say the only way we can save the planet is through us the people. This is an example in action. And it's also why the fossil fuel industry is terrified of democracy and why it spends billions to try to criminalize peaceful protest in the US and around the world. Awareness in Ecuador of Chevron's toxic legacy in the Amazon also helped drive this result.” - Steven Donziger

Yasuní’s vast diversity of life

Yasuní  National Park is home to over 4,000 plant species, 600 species of birds, 60 snakes, 140 frogs and toads, and over 170 mammals – and almost certainly thousands of species yet to be discovered and classified. Within one hectare of land, Yasuní  holds a greater diversity of trees than both the U.S. and Canada combined. There are several indigenous peoples who live within and around the boundaries of Yasuní, including uncontacted groups like the Tagaeri and Taromenane. 

Yasuní below ground

But below ground, Yasuní  also contains large oil reserves in a country highly dependent on oil exportation, paired with major debt. The Ecuadorian government began drilling in Block 43-ITT in 2016, after a multi-year failed attempt to get the developed world to pay Ecuador to keep the oil in the ground.

Where does Yasuní’s oil end up?

Currently, over 66% of oil from the Yasuní  region is shipped to the United States - and the largest buyer of Amazon oil is the state of California, where “1 in every 7 tanks of gas, diesel or jet fuel pumped in Southern California last year came from the Amazon rainforest.”

Yasuní  National Park has been at the center of environmental and human rights debates for decades, with its world renowned biodiversity, pristine primary rainforest, and role as ancestral home to contacted and uncontacted indigenous peoples whose lands, communities, livelihoods, and ways of life are threatened daily by legal and illegal oil extraction, mining, logging, agriculture, development and more.

Oils spills have devastated areas of the Ecuadorian Amazon, causing serious health crises in communities dependent on rivers and underground reserves for drinking water. 

New and expanding roads fragment the forest on either side, severing the continuity of wildlife habitats, degrading forest health, opening access to previously inaccessible and newly vulnerable areas, and threatening indigenous communities living in voluntary isolation.

Extractive activities like mining and oil drilling bring higher rates of violence and crime to local communities, and indigenous anti-extraction leaders or protestors are often criminalized and even killed.

A second victory in the Choco-Andino 

The people of Quito also decidedly voted against new mining concessions in the Chocó Andino Biosphere Reserve, located in the endemic-rich mountainous cloudforest region just outside the city of Quito. Like the Yasuní  vote, this victory was won by dedicated activists, leaders, organizations and communities, as well as years of ongoing organizing.


Blueprints for the future of the global climate movement

These votes are undeniably historic, and are remarkable demonstrations of the power of local organizing; they are evidence that victories won even in one relatively small area of a national park can cause waves around the world, and have disproportionate and groundbreaking impact. The Ecuadorian people are now leaders in the movement for a global transition away from fossil fuels and for environmental justice. 

But, like any victory within a greater movement, these votes are not by any means the end, and the need for people from all walks of life to follow Ecuadorians’ footsteps is as vital as ever. Grassroots organizing, indigenous leadership, and popular votes are powerful tools that can be used to replicate these wins around the world. 

This exciting moment in Ecuadorian (and global) history is sending a resounding message that the world can and must move away from its dependence on fossil fuels, and that protecting forests, biodiversity, and indigenous lands is the inevitable and necessary future that people want and will fight for. 

Update: on September 6, Guillermo Lasso, soon-to-be-replaced president of Ecuador, announced during a meeting with leaders and representatives of indigenous Amazonian communities that his government will continue oil extraction in Block 43-ITT despite the referendum’s outcome. 

Indigenous and activist groups are speaking out against this refusal and disregard of Ecuador’s democratic process and are calling on the millions of Ecuadorians who voted “Yes,” as well as the international community, to stay vigilant and continue advocating for the protection of Yasuní. Clearly, the work is not done, and Ecuadorians and people around the world alike must continue to call on the government to honor the democratic decision to keep Yasuní’s oil in the ground. 

We continue to follow this story and encourage you to keep learning about this important moment and its implications for the climate movement around the world.