By Pablo Solón. August 8, 2023
[Español] “Leave the oil in the ground? Give up more than a billion dollars a year? Put nature above the economy? What madness is this?”
These were the initial reactions to an innovative environmental measure in Ecuador that, after many years, has finally triumphed in a popular consultation, prioritizing nature over the predatory logic of extractivism.
The first time I heard of the Yasuní proposal was in 2006. It was a daring initiative for its time that proposed renouncing oil drilling in a mega-diverse area of the Amazon called Yasuní National Park in exchange for monetary compensation from wealthy countries.
The recognition of the rights of nature in Ecuador’s 2008 constitution gave new impetus to the Yasuní proposal by stating that nature “has the right to integral respect for its existence and for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes.” But at the same time, the charter foreshadowed a contradiction that would finally be resolved 15 years later on August 20, 2023.
As Bolivia’s ambassador to the United Nations and chief climate change negotiator between 2009 and 2011, I voiced support for the demand that industrialized countries pay their climate debt to less-developed nations for having been the main emitters of greenhouse gases that caused global warming. What Ecuador was asking for regarding Yasuní – some $3.6 billion to preserve the area, or half of the projected revenues from the site at 2007 levels – was very little compared to the historical responsibility of these countries.
Still, they still refused to fund the initiative.
In the corridors of the UN climate talks in Cancun in 2010, the argument I heard from Northern delegates (because they never spoke honestly in the official sessions) led me to conclude that the negotiations were going to fail. “It’s not the amount of money they’re asking for,” they said. “It’s the precedent that would be set. If we pay Ecuador to keep its oil untapped, imagine what other countries will demand for not extracting their oil.”
The Yasuní proposal helped to unmask the hypocrisy of developed countries that gave lip service to sustainability and ending their dependence on fossil fuels, but reality balked at supporting a concrete proposal to do just that.
The Yasuní proposal was distorted in the climate negotiations by Ecuador’s own government under President Rafael Correa, in office from 2007-17. The request to leave the oil untapped in Yasuní National Park became a more and more commercial proposal. Ecuadorian officials began to propose carbon offsets to leave the oil under the ground in Yasuní, even though scientists have demonstrated that forest offsets programs are often flawed and “create incentives to generate credits that do not reflect real climate benefits.”
As a result, I began to distance myself from the Yasuní proposal. I objected to commodifying nature for economic gain, and instead reinforce the work on Rights of Nature initiatives. It’s one thing to pay an ecological debt, and quite another to impose market rules on natural services, forgetting that this same logic is what got us into the climate crisis.
Ecuador’s climate negotiators argued that the main thing was to pay to protect Yasuní, to which I responded, if Ecuador recognizes the rights of nature, it can’t put a price on nature. Imagine saying you’ll only respect your neighbor’s right to life if they pay you. You can’t condition the fulfillment of human rights and the rights of nature on economic compensation. In these conversations, it became clear that the Correa administration was making the protection of nature conditional on monetary gain.
And so it was! In 2013, Ecuador announced that funding to protect Yasuní had fallen embarrassingly short and that it would begin to drill for oil in this unique region of the planet.
What happened next is an epic story. A group of young people, collectives, and non-governmental organizations that were persecuted under Correa took to the streets to collect signatures for a national referendum to ask the population whether the oil under Yasuní National Park should remain untapped. They called themselves Yasunidos (Yasu-nited). They gathered more than 750,000 signatures in favor of a referendum, but the authorities claimed they had falsified the list and denied the vote. They spent a decade in court, and many of the young activists became adults, the older ones acquired gray hair, until finally a judge ruled that they had fulfilled all the requirements for a national consultation on Yasuní.
And so on Sunday, the nation of Ecuador went to the polls to answer this question: “Do you agree that the Ecuadorian Government should maintain the oil reserves of the ITT, known as Block 43, in the subsoil indefinitely?” If so, they were told, “a progressive and orderly withdrawal of all activities related to oil extraction will be carried out within a period of no more than one year.”
The “Yes” campaign won with around 59% of the vote. Despite the economic crisis and problems of crime, violence, and fear, more than 5 million Ecuadorians voted to leave the oil underground in Yasuní, issuing a resounding “Yes” to life.
This is Yasuní 2.0, a resurgence of the 2006 proposal, but free from the economic conditions of the original measure. The Ecuadorian people voted “Yes” simply because drilling oil in the Amazon harms nature, period. They didn’t use nature as a bargaining chip for monetary gain. This is the greatest tribute that can be paid to the rights of nature by a country that was initially at the vanguard of the movement.
The Yasuní national consultation will mark a before and after in the defense of the Amazon and the fight against climate change. Social organizations warned the presidents in the Amazon Summit on August 8 in Belem du Pará, Brazil, about the implications of a Yes in the Yasuni referendum that just happened.
The “Yes” to Yasuní has many dimensions. It’s the logic of nature triumphing over the logic of extractivism, it’s a radical questioning of our anthropocentrism, it’s a call for an ecological society, and an example of ethics and perseverance. But above all, it’s a beacon of hope for us all, because it shows us that we can recover our humanity.
*Translation and English edition by Megan Morrissey