Yesterday, the people of Ecuador went to the polls to decide, for the first time in history, the fate of oil extraction in the Ecuadorian Amazon — and they chose to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

At the heart of the first-of-its-kind referendum was the Yasuní rainforest, one of the most biodiverse places on Earth and home to some of the last Indigenous people in voluntary isolation: the Tagaeri, Taromenane, and Dugakaeri. Just one hectare of Yasuní land is said to contain more animal species than the whole of Europe and more tree species than exist in all of North America.

But beneath the rich land lies Ecuador’s largest reserve of crude oil, making it a prime target for the fossil fuel industry. According to reports from the Andean Amazon Monitoring Project, at least 689 hectares — the equivalent of over 1,200 football fields — have been deforested in the Yasuní, most of it by the oil industry.

Yasuní’s fate was decided at the polls as the South American nation voted to leave large oil reserves in the ground. This was the first time that the people of Ecuador have voted on an environmental issue of this magnitude, an important decision that will require the state oil company to end its operations in the region and phase out all existing projects. 

With over 90% of the ballots counted by early Monday, around six in 10 Ecuadorians said "no" to Big Oil.

Among those who campaigned to stop the drilling was climate activist Helena Gualinga, who hails from a remote village in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

“This referendum presents a huge opportunity for us to create change in a tangible way,” she told CNN.

The referendum comes as the world faces blistering temperatures, raging wildfires, and extreme weather events that are costing lives and livelihoods across the globe. What’s more, studies suggest that the Amazon is approaching a critical tipping point that could see the biologically rich ecosystem transformed into a savannah, which would have severe implications in the fight to tackle climate change.

With the recent news that UK Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, has pledged to “max out” the UK’s oil and gas reserves, ignoring environmental groups’ warnings that this would obliterate the UK’s climate commitments, the vote in Ecuador sets an important global precedent.

Without rich biodiversity, once-mighty rivers will continue to slow to a trickle, soil-rich grasslands will turn to desert, and the world’s forests will become unrecognizable. In short, the things vital to upholding life on this planet will collapse.

The global decline of biodiversity is the twin crisis of climate change; they’re both caused by humanity’s exploitative economic systems, they reinforce one another, and they demand the same sense of urgency from world leaders. 

As Antonia Juhasz, Senior Researcher on Fossil Fuels at Human Rights Watch, put it: “The Amazon is worth more intact than in pieces, as are its people.”


Defend the Planet

Ecuador Votes to Ban Oil Drilling in the Amazon in Historic First

By Tess Lowery