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The Collective Process to Defend Yasuni National Park


Over 50 years ago, Ecuador began aggressively extracting oil in its Amazon region, the ancestral territory of Indigenous peoples and nationalities for thousands of years. Since then, transnational companies like Texaco and Shell increased their multimillion-dollar profits, while externalizing the environmental costs and liabilities to the Ecuadorian state and local communities. However, over the decades, it turns out the promise of development and overcoming poverty through oil revenue is a myth. Not only have the national poverty and inequality rates remained the same or worsened, but the populations that live closet to oil projects are the poorest in the country.

That is why the Indigenous movement as well as environmental organizations have raised a series of protests, legal actions, and strategies over the years to stop oil activities in the Ecuadorian Amazon, and demand the state and transnational companies guarantee rights, justice and reparation. This enormous collective experience, the reflections that were being built and the proposals that were being developed, allowed the government to launch the Yasuní – ITT Initiative in 2007. The proposal sought support from the international community to help Ecuador keep the “Ishpingo – Tiputini – Tambococha” (ITT) oil fields, known as block 43, permanently in the ground underneath the northeast part of Yasuní National Park in the Ecuadorian Amazon, the most biodiverse place on Earth. At its core, the initiative raised a debate on the extractive model of development and global responsibility for the preservation of the Amazon. However, on August 15, 2013, President Rafael Correa himself ordered the termination of the Yasuní-ITT Initiative and oil exploitation in the ITT block inside the Yasuní National Park began.

In response, a group of youth named YASunidos convened a group of organizations, networks, and movements to form a coalition to defend Yasuní and its peoples. It’s proposal was focused on holding a referendum that would ask the Ecuadorian people if they agreed or not with leaving the crude oil underground in block 43. This mechanism for direct democracy is part of the rights enshrined in the 2008 Constitution, which includes, among other elements, the plurinational nature of the Ecuadorian State, the rights of nature, but above all the right to participation and the guarantee of participatory democracy. The referendum for Yasuní gathered 757,000 signatures, and became the first direct democracy initiative organized by citizens in the country. However, the National Electoral Council arbitrarily annulled more than 60% of the signatures collected, despite several legal challenges to the contrary. The YASunidos collective pursued legal action against the Ecuadorian State for almost 10 years to demonstrate fraud had occurred, and continued the fight to defend Yasuni in the courts by filing legal complaints, appeals, precautionary measures, protection actions, requests for information, etc., as well as organizing initiatives like deliberative assemblies, the creation of other collectives in different latitudes at the national and international level, peaceful protests at state institutions, mobilizations, communication campaigns, artivism, among other actions.

Finally, after winning in different legal junctures, and with the official recognition that the Ecuadorian State violated the right to participation of thousands of citizens, on May 10, 2023, the Constitutional Court of Ecuador gave the green light to the Yasuni referendum, which will occur on August 20, 2023. The question posed almost ten years ago by the group remains the same. The Court guaranteed the right to democratic participation by allowing Ecuadorian

citizens–the power of the people–to use a referendum to provide checks and balances on the government that, if approved, would stop extraction activities in Yasuni that never should have existed. This ruling implies not only stopping the advance of the oil frontier in the most biodiverse area on the planet, but also the progressive and orderly closure of all the oil wells in block 43. It is the beginning of the long-awaited ecological transition!

Undoubtedly, the holding of the popular consultation and the related ruling of the Court constitute a historical milestone for Ecuador and the world because:

1. It is the first direct democracy initiative at the national level approved by the Constitutional Court with binding effects that can effectively stop extractive activities.

2. It opens a national and international debate on the importance of participation «from the ground up» in relevant issues such as the ecological crisis, the hegemonic capitalist development model and its effects.

3. It is a fundamental mechanism to guarantee the rights and lives of the Tagaeri-Taromenane Indigenous peoples in isolation, as well as the rights of nature recognized in the Constitution.

4. It gives way to real possibilities for reparation not only for the YASunidos collective and all the people who supported the initiative, but above all for the peoples and nationalities that have directly experienced true dispossession and ethnocide in their own territories.

5. It constitutes the first concrete initiative to mitigate climate change by leaving crude oil underground and initiating a true energy transition that includes peoples and nationalities as well as ecological and decolonial perspectives.

Given the stakes, national and international support is urgent from all those who consider that the defense of life, of the Amazon jungle and of Yasuní as one of the most biodiverse territories on the planet, is essential for sustaining life on the planet, democracy, and the redistribution of decision-making and power.