Ecuadoreans voted to ban oil drilling in the Yasuní region of the Amazon rainforest during a referendum over the weekend. Supporters of protecting the national park, a haven for biodiversity, have hailed the vote a major victory for the planet and Indigenous rights.
“In one fell swoop, the Ecuadorean people struck a mighty blow to the oil industry, protected one of the most biodiverse forests in the Amazon and showed the world what grassroots climate action really looks like,” Mitch Anderson, executive director of the nonprofit Amazon Frontlines, says in a statement, per CNN’s Claudia Rebaza and Hannah Holland.
Yasuní National Park spans about 2.5 million acres and houses 610 species of birds, 139 species of amphibians and 121 species of reptiles. According to a study from 2010, just one hectare of land in the forest contains more tree species than are native to the continental United States and Canada combined. A single hectare in Yasuní also boasts more than 100,000 insect species.
The park is home to the Indigenous Waorani and Kichwa communities as well as the Taromenane, Tagaeri and Dugakaeri, the last Indigenous groups living in voluntary isolation in Ecuador.
But the forest also holds the country’s largest oil reserve, and some Ecuadoreans have argued that denying access to that resource would damage the country’s economy. Energy Minister Fernando Santos told the local radio earlier this year that the losses would equate to $1.2 billion annually if the oil is left in the ground, per Reuters’ Alexandra Valencia. Ecuador’s government relies on oil for more than a third of its revenue.
Recognizing the potential economic benefit of the oil—and the environmental harm of extracting and burning it—the country’s former president Rafael Correa proposed an idea more than a decade ago: that wealthy nations should pay Ecuador to preserve Yasuní National Park. But support for this plan among international governments proved to be lackluster. After seven years, Ecuador had raised only $13 million toward its goal of $3.6 billion, and in 2014, the country decided to move forward with drilling.
In opposition to oil extraction, activist group Yasunidos has been fighting for a decade to get the Yasuní referendum in front of voters, reports the New York Times’ Manuela Andreoni and Catrin Einhorn. In 2016, the state’s oil company officially started extracting oil from the forest. Then, this May, Ecuador’s Supreme Court ruled that the government should include a vote on drilling in the next election.
Prior to the vote, the international human rights organization Survival International called drilling in the uncontacted tribes’ territory a “huge threat to their survival.” Yet not all Indigenous peoples were in agreement on the referendum—16 communities living in and around the park supported the oil industry, saying it brought development and stability. But other groups and major organizations representing Indigenous peoples have been on the frontlines in the fight against it.
As of Monday, more than 90 percent of the ballots were counted, with about six in ten voters rejecting drilling in the Yasuní area. Voters also cast ballots for their new president in a race that will go to a runoff between leftist Luisa González and right-wing Daniel Noboa.
The referendum comes as climate change is exacerbating wildfires, heat waves and flooding across the world, and environmentalists are urging governments to turn away from fossil fuels and switch to renewables. The ballot measure applied to just one section of the Yasuní National Park known as Block 43, per the Associated Press (AP), and activists are planning to oppose drilling in other areas as well.
“It’s not that we’re going to feel relieved. We can breathe a moment of calm, we’re happy, but there are many more oil wells in Waorani territory causing harm,” Nemo Guiquita, a leader of the Waorani tribe, tells the AP. “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.”