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Ecuador prepares for ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ vote to stop oil drilling

Referendum alongside presidential election will decide whether to halt extraction in Amazon national park

As Ecuadorians go to the polls on Sunday they must not only decide between eight presidential candidates but also vote on an unprecedented referendum question that could set a new course for the oil-reliant nation.

The poll will decide whether to halt drilling at the Yasuní Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) oilfield, also known as oil block 43, which lies in an Amazon national park and one of the world’s richest pockets of biodiversity. Ecuador’s largest protected area is also home to the Waorani people and the country’s last Indigenous communities in voluntary isolation, the Tagaeri and Taromenane.

When casting their ballots in a snap election that has been marked by the brutal assassination of a presidential candidate, a second referendum question will ask voters just in Quito whether to allow mining in the Chocó Andino, a vast area of land near the capital.

Ecuador is cash-strapped amid declining revenue from tax collection and the oil industry. The country earned $991m (£778m) from oil between January and July this year, less than half the $2.3bn it received during the same period last year, according to finance ministry data.

Last week, the rating agency Fitch downgraded Ecuador’s credit score to CCC+, seven points below investment grade. While it cited the country’s political and security risk, it also estimated a $600m fall in fiscal revenues and a 12% drop in oil output if the yes vote succeeded.

It is not the first time Yasuní ITT has become a touchstone for the struggle between big oil and protecting the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador. In 2007, the then newly elected president, Rafael Correa, famously offered the world the chance to keep about 850m barrels in the ground at the oilfield.

By creating a fund for half of the oil’s estimated value, $3.6bn, countries would compensate Ecuador for not touching the reserves.

Whether it was a gamble or a publicity stunt, the bid failed to get the money. In 2013, Correa ended the initiative and gave the go-ahead to oil drilling on the 2,000-hectare (4,942-acre) patch of rainforest, reaching peak production of 57,000 barrels of oil a day.

It was also the beginning of the activist movement Yasunidos, which gathered more than 750,000 signatures to hold a referendum to achieve what Correa had failed to do. Ten years on and after lengthy legal battles, Ecuador’s highest court ruled the vote could take place.

The Indigenous Waorani leader and activist Nemonte Nenquimo said Sunday’s vote offered Ecuadorians a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity”.

“The decision is now ours: we can change the course of history by saying yes to [blocking] Yasuní, we can all be defenders of Mother Earth and protect our future”, she told the Guardian.

“Oil extraction isn’t development. We only need to look at the facts to see the truth: oil causes poverty, contamination and death.”

Alberto Acosta-Burneo, an economist and editor of the Weekly Analysis bulletin, said Ecuador would be “shooting itself in the foot” if it shut down the fourth oil block in Yasuní ITT.

“Supposedly we do the environment good by ceasing to produce oil but we don’t reduce consumption of fossil fuels; as a result, another country will raise its oil output to sell us more fuel,” he said in a video posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Polls indicate that Ecuadorians may be listening to activists’ and Indigenous people’s calls to cease the country’s half-century of reliance on oil.

“Ecuador has an obligation to make an energy transition which is economically viable,” Patricia Gualinga, an Indigenous leader of the Kichwa community of Sarayaku, said. “The oil won’t last more than 15 years. It’s a non-renewable resource.”

Gualinga fought and won a case in the inter-American court of human rights in 2012 to block government-authorised oil exploration by an Argentinian company on her people’s land.

She said Ecuador’s dependence on oil had not brought “any benefit, only death and destruction” for its Indigenous people, half of whom still live in poverty while oil spills in the Amazon are commonplace.

The country’s rainforest has been the scene of an “Amazon Chernobyl”, a series of huge oil spills that sparked a legal battle which has been going on for three decades between activists and the oil company Chevron.

“If we win, it will be a triumph for Ecuador,” said Hueiya Cahuiya, 46, the founder of the Waorani Women’s Association of the Ecuadorian Amazon who has fought oil drilling in the park since, as a teenager, oil contractors destroyed a sacred burial ground where her grandfather’s remains lay.

“We don’t want any more contamination in our rivers, any more extraction on our land,” she said. “We want a different future.”

Source: The Guardian