Back in 2013, we already spoke to Yasuni about a then newly proposed citizens’ initiative aimed at protecting the Amazon forest in Ecuador from devastating oil drilling. Now, ten years and many obstacles later, this article is dedicated to the success of the vote!
The vote resulted from a citizen initiative regarding the nationwide issue. According to the Constitution of Ecuador, five per cent of eligible voters should support the initiative for the vote to happen. The initiators are given six months to collect the necessary signatures. For more detailed information on the legislation visit the Direct Democracy Navigator.
On 20 August this year, the people of Ecuador voted against the oil extraction from block 43 of the Yasuni forest with an overwhelming majority. Out of over 82% of the voters who came to cast their ballots, nearly 60% (58.95%) of them voted “Yes” to the question “Do you agree with the Ecuadorian government in keeping the ITT crude, known as block 43, underground indefinitely?” Not only it is the first vote ever on an issue initiated by citizens in Ecuador, but also a powerful story of direct democracy exercise and the determination it demands for the world. We interviewed Jorge Espinosa from the Yasunidos NGO coalition to learn more about the peoples’ movement without which this encouraging victory of direct democracy would not have been possible.
How did you end up joining Yasunidos?
My name is Jorge Andres Espinosa, I am from Quito, Ecuador. I am a member of the Yasunidos movement which has been pursuing the referendum for the last ten years. I am also an architect.
My story of joining Yasunidos is very emotional. It was 2009, I was at school, and I remember watching the news about an organisation that united a lot of activists who wanted to protect the Yasuni rainforest. I hadn’t even heard of this place in Ecuador before, but it really moved me as I was watching the images of nature and the people who had been living there for millennia. I am a millennial, and we have always been around emergency, feeling the changes around us, as if the apocalypse is going to happen. This movement gave me hope and purpose in life, so I joined the organisation and started actively campaigning for it.
Could you give us an overview of the path that the NGO coalition has gone through in the past ten years?
The fight for the protection of the Yasuni National Park has been going on for the last 30 years. During the first 20 years, it was a campaign pushed by different organisations that were trying to protect the park and the people living there. In the last ten years, after the former president of Ecuador Rafael Correa declined the Yasuni ITT initiative (the initiative started in 2007 by Rafael Correa to prevent extraction of oil inside the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini oil field), Yasunidos was created.
It was created because originally the government wanted to ban the extraction of oil from the 43 block inside the Yasuni Park. The block of 200,000 hectares in the heart of the rainforest is a key for survival of indigenous populations and isolated communities.
After the president declined the initiative, Yasunidos proposed a national referendum so that the oil could stay in the ground. Immediately after, the Ecuadorian Electoral College accepted our proposal and informed us of the 500,000 signatures that needed to be collected for the referendum to proceed. In around three months Yasunidos collected over 736,000 signatures. The problem was, after we turned in those signatures, the state boycotted the process. We found out that the people who reviewed the signatures were instructed to take out as many signatures as possible, so even our own signatures were rejected based on the statement that the signatures were not alike (to the ones in the citizens’ registry). However, when we compared the signatures, they were exactly the same.
We only found out about the rejected signatures years later. This started a snowball process that finally resulted in the Constitutional Court declaring last year that the referendum had to proceed. In May 2023, the referendum was finally called for by the Electoral College.
How do you interpret the results of the vote? What did this result mean for the coalition?
This is not only the first national referendum organised by the citizens of Ecuador, but also the first referendum on a planetary scale that proposed leaving oil underground. That by itself needs to be acknowledged.
But also in 2007, when Rafael Correa won the presidential election, his approval was 56%. The Yasuni referendum was approved by almost 60%. So this is the most important social pact that was voted upon in the history of Ecuador since we came back to democracy in the 70s.
For us, it means that we are declaring ourselves the defenders of nature and culture, and we aim to be a post-extractive society.
Opponents of direct democracy often claim that citizens are not competent enough to make big nation-wide decisions. Yet, Ecuadorians voted to stop the drilling despite the fact that many said it was a big contribution to the country’s budget. Why have people voted like this?
There are many elements that can explain the outcome of the vote, but they mostly come down to five points.
Firstly, the Yasuni rainforest is the most biodiverse ecosystem on the planet. It is something very easy to campaign for.
Secondly, there are isolated communities living in the jungle. Their rights have been repeatedly violated over the past decades. As a matter of fact, in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights case Tagaeri-Taromenane vs. Ecuador, Ecuador is going to lose. It is being judged that extractivism is a massacre against the isolated communities of Tagaeri and Taromenane. So I believe the second reason is that we are conscious and do not want to be a part of this genocide.
Furthermore, over the past 50 years of Ecuador being an oil-extractive country, the population have not seen any improvement in the financial situation. As a matter of fact, Ecuador is going through a very hard economic recession partially because of its dependency on oil as a primary source of income. We haven’t really left poverty.
Reason number four is that the biggest catastrophes of oil extraction happened near or in Ecuador. There were the Grupo Mexico disaster, Exxon Valdez in Alaska and Chevron-Texaco in Ecuador. Over 900 pools of contaminated water were left poisoning the jungle. We have it as a scar in our history and know that oil extraction has had a strong negative impact on communities and nature.
Lastly, we now know that the only people actually benefiting from the oil extraction are international companies not contributing to the Ecuadorian population. The local people who live in the 43 block of the Yasuni rainforest are being blackmailed and manipulated into voting “No”.
What is the response of the government to this binding vote and its action plans?
The government has always been against participatory democracy, and it is almost a natural conflict. The marriage between representative democracy and capitalism facilitates extractivism to happen in the global South.
Naturally, over the last three presidents, the government in some ways boycotted the referendum. After the Court accepted the referendum to go through, the government has manipulated many facts, such as the impact of oil drilling in block 43 on the economy of Ecuador. During the campaign, they radically opposed the “Yes” campaign claiming the refusal to extract the oil would cause economic instability. Many scientists called it out as a bluff.
Now, after the Yasuni victory, the government has one year to start removing the oil-drilling infrastructure from the block. From the statements is clear that the government does not actually have a plan and still rejects the fact that the block has to be vacated.
Does the coalition have any future plans, especially in the context of governmental reaction?
Yes! The vote is the achievement of many people and organisations. So, next we are going to have meetings with indigenous organisations to start working on the plan of overcoming extractivism on the territories of the Yasuni Park under the ancestral indigenous view. We are going to need a lot of international help for this to happen. The Yasuni post-extractivism future is starting with this referendum, this is only chapter one of this book. Now, we have to actually start thinking about the transition.
Now, when the ballots are cast, what is the further role of the international community in supporting these future chapters of the Yasuni book?
Now, that we have a lot of attention from the world, we can start thinking how experts around the world can help to create a worldwide coalition. With it, we can start thinking how to maintain this ecosystem over the next centuries. Another dimension is the economic bridges for finances that could be accessed directly by the indigenous organisations to create new economic ecosystem in their land.
How would you describe this experience of using a direct democracy tool?
For me, it is a bypass. Extractivism happens because of the marriage between representative democracy and capitalism. The only way to surpass it is by creating these bypasses. Direct democracy is a true way of achieving change. We have to rescale everything on the basis of people leaving on their lands and making all the choices on these lands, creating a confederation of different communities that have complete control over their resources. Getting there and administrating it can only happen through direct democracy.
Lastly, I believe this is a powerful story of direct democracy practice. So, do you have any advice for those using direct democracy tools in their own countries?
One true piece of advice I would give is to create a coalition of different organisations. The powers of the old-style school of politics may not be broken. The moment one wants to break it, to innovate, to create a new ecosystem of anything, the established school is going to reject it. And also, finding a way that is not conflictive towards the state, a path for change the state would not reject. This is possible if one has strong laws that are protective of participatory democracy rights.