Despite Ecuadorian drug and violence struggle currently taking place, a presidential election and a referendum about the future of the country´s nature took place on August 20, 2023. The outcome of the referendum was unprecedented and unexpected. Citizens of the Latin American country voted in favour of nature protection, above fossil fuel extraction and mining activities in the UNESCO Biosphere reserves Yasuni (Amazon) and Chocó Andino (near Quito). Yet, the implementation of the protection status for both areas is of utmost importance now as the presidential elections remain undecided. This article describes the challenges Ecuador is facing while arguing from an eco-democracy view, how the international community can support the proper implementation of this historical referendum.
The unparalleled value of nature
The Ecuadorian Amazonian Yasuni and the near Quito situated Chocó Andino are both UNESCO Biosphere Reserves, but Yasuni is of special importance due to its abundance of (endemic and vulnerable) species compared to the entire North American continent combined. The park contains high quality freshwater due to its (head) rivers, in a world where freshwater availability is becoming an issue (Bass et al, 2010). Medicinal plants are found in the jungle, which can possibly support cancer-cure research and medicines. Furthermore, the two indigenous groups living in voluntary isolation, the Tagaeri and Taromenane, are the last of their kind and crucial to the protection of this pristine forest and area (Larrea and Warnars, 2009).
Ecuador and its black gold or curse?
Although Ecuador is abundant in terms of nature and culture, the country also contains several oil fields, also in Yasuni. Indeed, the region contains 846 million barrels of crude oil. Oil companies and Ecuadorian politicians influenced by their lobbyists, argue that without oil exports, the small country will go bankrupt. However, they refrain from mentioning that Ecuador's oil reserves are running out anyway and that oil production in the Yasuní is not even profitable because of the poor quality of the black gold. Rather, in general the oil (and mining) industry is reducing economic growth, while degrading environmental, social and health factors in the country, as well as abroad. As such, Ecuador has not been able to lift itself from the oil extracting and raw materials-based economy. Overall, the true total costs are too high compared to the benefits. The true total costs refers to the internal and external impact converted to costs of oil drilling on the short, as well as the long term. This is not only apparent in Ecuador, but also in many other developing countries where the primary economic income depends on natural resources. For instance: Nigeria – oil, and Congo – cobalt (Larrea and Warnars, 2009).
The rhetorical question is: “What is the ultimate benefit of having a resource-based economy, while a country, region and the entire planet are experiencing decline and collapse due to loss of biodiversity and rapid onset of climate change resulting from such human activities?”
A groundbreaking proposal...
Due to above mentioned developments and reasoning on the national as well as global scale, the small Latin American country made a revolutionary proposal in 2007: Ecuador aimed at committing to keep the 846 million barrels of oil underground in ITT, which would avoid 400 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions. In this calculation, Ecuador even excluded the avoidance of emissions from deforestation and degradation. In exchange for this protection effort, the country requested economic compensation from the international community of US$ 3.6 billion, 50% of what could have been obtained as income if the oil was to be exploited. The other half would come from Ecuador itself, while the donations would be invested in the sustainabilization of the country (nature conservation, renewable energy, and social projects). A brilliant, idealistic, though pragmatic idea for all current and future generations alike (Arsel and Pellegrini, 2013; Lang, 2023; Warnars, 2014).
The initiative was widely supported by different countries such as Germany and Spain, several global celebrities, and important organizations. Furthermore, the Yasuni-ITT Initiative can also be replicated by other biodiverse developing countries, such as, the Republic of the Congo, Mozambique, and Indonesia, which is referred to as the Yasunization of the world (Warnars, 2010; 2014). Ecuador also included the concept of Rights for Nature in their constitution as well as it proposed a dept for nature swap to protect and preserve the Galapagos and coastal regions.
A monetary value on priceless nature is debatable
Critically however, appointing a monetary value to a natural area such as Yasuni, with intrinsic value for many, including indigenous groups, may be problematic. This because moral values may be a stronger force to protect, preserve and regenerate valuable aspects, such as natural areas, than money which is often more accessible to the few (rich, elite), compared to the many (citizens, nature). Indeed, putting a price on nature, may decrease the moral value of the region itself (Arsel and Pellegrini, 2013). Still, ´The idea of the initiative was that the international community would change its relationship with the environment by contributing to a fund that transcended national and private interests´ (Arsel and Pellegrini, 2013).
Oil companies grasped Yasuni when preservation was missed by donors
In August 2013, the Ecuadorian government abandoned the whole idealistic though pragmatic Yasuni-ITT initiative and signed a contract for the Ishpingo region with a Chinese energy company called CNCP (Parraga, 2022), as the international community would not have donated sufficient amount of funding in order to implement Yasuni-ITT in practice. Indeed, when the initiative was cancelled, US$ 13 million had been obtained, which is barely 0.37% of what was expected by the State (Lang, 2023). In the end, state owned oil company Petroecuador started drilling for the oil.
Ecuador promised to extract the oil in the most environmentally friendly way to minimize the ecological and environmental impacts, however, that has been ineffective, because the country seems to experience two oil spills per week (Lang, 2023; Warnars, 2014). ´In 2020 and 2022, whole pipelines broke and tens of thousands of barrels of crude oil leaked into the Amazon River´ (Lang, 2023). This has grave effects on local, national as well as global scales in terms of diseases (cancer), pollution (water, nature, communities), and greenhouse gas emissions (CO2).
An historical outcome
Ten years later however, (2013 – 2023), there is a window of opportunity: a new election took place on August 20, 2023 and YASunidos, an Ecuadorian citizen led movement in favour of the initiative, campaigned extensively with other civil society groups for a referendum to protect Yasuni and Chocó Andino from oil extraction and mining activities (Save Yasuni, 2023). Despite the dire situation in the country due to drug traffic and violence against politicians, including the assassination of an important presidential candidate, Ecuadorian citizens voted for the referendum, and also for a new president. When counting 92% of the votes, 59% of the Ecuadorian citizens voted in favour of protecting Yasuni and 41% voted against this pioneering initiative, while 68% voted in favour of Chocó Andino´s protection, and 31% against (Collyns, 2023).
Through the referendum, ´The Ecuadorian government is required to halt the operations and dismantle infrastructure within one year, as well as carry out remediation and reforestation´ (Collyns, 2023).
As the first round of the presidential elections on the same date, August 20, have been undecided, the second round of elections in October will give more clarity over whether the government can answer to this call and support its citizens in protecting nature.
The outcome of this historical referendum can be called ´eco democracy' as its first case and in the most innovative way, if the future government realizes the demands of its citizens. Indeed, with Yasuni and Chocó Andino, Ecuador may transform itself from a more extractive and raw material-based economy, to a more sustainable one, while inspiring many around the globe to follow the same example. Ecuador may showcase a revolutionary transition in thinking and practice towards a more harmonious relationship with ourselves, as well as the natural environment, for intra- and inter-generational equity. A case of actual humanitarian evolution and revolution, not only ecologically, but also psychologically (Black and Hughes, 2017; Bregman, 2019). Furthermore, Ecuador can be a great example for many while implementing, managing and inspiring multiple topics from an inclusive and comprehensive perspective.
Indeed, compared to former governments of the country, these are unique steps which are backed by the civil society and allies. Even in times of great danger and strong interests in resource economy- based decisions as well as the drug industry. The challenge is to overcome these enormous powers from oil, mining and cocaine trade and act according to the urgency of the matter.
International support for the future of Planet Earth
Implementing this referendum not only refers to the Yasunization of Ecuador; combatting climate change, biodiversity loss, and inequity, but also to preserving and safeguarding the memories, lessons and legacies of all ancestors, as well as current and future generations alike.
The perseverance, strong will and desires of the Ecuadorian citizens are outstanding and admirable, and should be recognized as such by all levels of society, including the local, national, and international governments, civil society and business. The implementation of the protection of the parks, and the transition to a more eco focussed economy and society should be supported and executed not tomorrow, but today.
It is time for humanity to step up, and support preserving one of the Earth´s most precious, vulnerable, yet diverse parks of Ecuador. This can be done by sharing and liking, all articles and posts related to this subject. Simultaneously, one can also find (investment) opportunities in Ecuador and its sustainable, natural, and social projects.
Why? Because there is only One Planet. One home. One community. For All.
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Bass, M. et al. (2010). Global Conservation Significance of Ecuador's Yasuní National Park. Plos One. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0008767
Black, B. and Hughes, S. (14 03 2017). Ego Free Leadership. Ending the Unconscious Habits that Hijack your Business. Greenleaf Book Group Press.
Bregman, R. (03 09 2019). De Meeste Mensen Deugen. De Correspondent.
Collyns, D. (2023). Ecuadorians vote to halt oil drilling in biodiverse Amazonian national park. In: The Guardian.
Lang, M. (July, 2023). Personal Communication. Text and emails.
Larrea, C. and Warnars, L. (2009). Ecuador's Yasuni-ITT Initiative: Avoiding emissions by keeping petroleum underground. Energy for Sustainable Development. 13 (3), 219- 223.
Parraga, M. (2022). China´s CNPC gets first oil drilling contract at Ecuador´s Isphingo field: Energy Minister. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/business/energy/chinas-cnpc-gets-first-oil-drilling-contract-ecuadors-ishpingo-field-energy-min-2022-02-23/
Save Yasuni. (2023). Save Yasuni. https://www.save-yasuni-now.eu/en/homepage
Warnars, L. (2010). Yasuni-ITT: an international environmental equity mechanism? Master thesis. Radboud University, Nijmegen.
Warnars, L. (2014). Saving Yasuni-ITT? The Broker. https://www.thebrokeronline.eu/saving-yasuni-itt/