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In Major Win for Indigenous Rights, Ecuador Votes to Ban Oil Drilling in Protected Amazon Lands

StoryAugust 22, 2023
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Ecuadorian voters have overwhelmingly supported a ban on future oil extraction in a biodiverse section of the Amazon’s Yasuní National Park — a historic referendum result that will protect Indigenous Yasuní land from development. We speak with Helena Gualinga, a youth Kichwa Sarayaku environmental activist from Ecuador who has fought against oil drilling all her life and says the results of the vote not only set a “crucial precedent” as the first time a country has voted by democratic ballot initiative on resource extraction in the Amazon, but also demonstrates that “Ecuador is a country that is committed to protecting the Amazon rainforest and to protecting Indigenous peoples.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

We end today’s show in Ecuador, where voters Sunday overwhelmingly supported a historic referendum blocking oil extraction in the Amazon’s Yasuní National Park, the largest protected area in Ecuador, with massive petroleum reserves crossing through Indigenous Yasuní land. The effort was spearheaded by Indigenous leaders and environmental defenders.

This comes as Ecuadorians also took to the polls for a snap presidential election that saw leftist Luisa González place first ahead of a runoff election in October. At least three political leaders were killed, assassinated, ahead of the election.

For more, we go to Puyo, Ecuador, to speak with Helena Gualinga, a youth Kichwa Sarayaku environmental activist who campaigned for the referendum and grew up in the remote Kichwa Sarayaku community in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

Helena, it’s wonderful to have you with us. Can you talk about the significance of this vote?

HELENA GUALINGA: Hi. Yes. This vote — first of all, this referendum was supposed to take place 10 years ago, and because of corruption, it didn’t happen. And now, finally, 10 years later, it was passed. And there was a lot of uncertainty of what the results would be. However, today Ecuador has really shown that Ecuador is a country that is committed to protecting the Amazon rainforest and to protect the Indigenous peoples.

It sets a crucial precedent for all Indigenous territories in the Amazon, as well as for the world, because this is the first time that people actually get to vote on an oil project, let alone an existing oil project. And now this oil project has to exit, even though they still have — they are still active in that territory. It’s really, really important on a national level, but I think also for the world. I mean, a country like Ecuador, that, you know, has been dependent on oil for many, many years economically, decides to vote out oil in the Amazon, really shows that that’s the way that we should be going into.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Helena, this is a very personal story for you. You grew up in a remote community in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Tell us about your community and why you have said that being an environmental activist, it was not a choice for you.

HELENA GUALINGA: I grew up in Sarayaku, which is a community here in the Ecuadorian Amazon. We fought oil when I was a child, and I witnessed everything that happens when Big Oil tries to come into your community without consent. And, I mean, what was happening in Yasuní was happening — when they wanted to start to exploit oil there, it was happening around the same time as my community was able to kick out the oil company from our territory. So, this is a really interesting time, as well, where we actually grew up witnessing what was happening to Yasuní 10 years ago when they allowed oil exploitation, as well as we were able to protect our territories.

And now 10 years later, we’re able to protect this, the Yasuní territory, as well, which, you know, is incredibly remarkable in the way that it’s been done, because it’s through popular vote, and we have millions of people who have actually backed this up. So, I mean, yes, of course, this has been very emotional for everyone who has been involved, and especially for those who come from the Yasuní territory and have been fighting for this for over 10 years, trying to protect their lands.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about how this is a blow to the Ecuadorian president, Lasso, and the significance of the region, the Yasuní forest one of the most biodiverse places on Earth, and the oil company that’s being kicked out, Helena?

HELENA GUALINGA: The oil company that’s being kicked out is a state-owned company, Petroecuador. They only have one year left of their contract. So, basically, the referendum is to see if there is a new contract or if the contract is ended. The government has been a little unclear on where they actually stand. Of course, they’ve been promoting the “no” vote, but there are many people within government that have stayed very silent on this, which has been surprising.

I think what’s more interesting than, I guess, like, the response of the government is the response of the new candidates, because at the same time there was presidential elections. Luisa González has been clearly in favor of the “no” vote and against the protection of this place, because her party was the party that actually allowed oil exploitation in Yasuní. And her opponent, Daniel Noboa, has pronounced himself in favor of the “yes” vote, in favor of protecting it. So, it will be really interesting also to see how they, I guess, in the second round of the elections, will defend the “yes” vote and the “no” vote, because now whichever one wins has to comply with what the Ecuadorian people voted, which is to protect this place and create a plan for the oil company’s exit. I think that’s much more interesting, because the “no” vote has been — you know, there’s been a really, really hard campaign from Luisa González’s side and her party and her team.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, you take the opposite position, just to be clear, with the “yes” and the “no” vote. What parts are able to be exploited by petroleum company, Helena?

HELENA GUALINGA: Unfortunately, within the Yasuní National Park, there are — besides this, the one that’s called Yasuní-ITT, which was in question in this particular referendum, there are still eight oil blocks that are active. And, I guess, next to them, there are 13 — or, outside of the national park, there are 13 oil blocks that are still being exploited.

Yesterday we got the news that Huaorani youth, that usually their — I guess, their school fees and university fees get paid by the oil company, now they’re not getting paid by the oil company, or their school fees —

AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds.

HELENA GUALINGA: — scholarships — their scholarships are not getting — you know, they’re not being covered by the oil companies anymore, even though within the Huaorani territory there are still 10 oil blocks. So, there was a lot of confusion on why the provinces where there are oil blocks actually were the only ones that voted against this, where they had a majority of —

AMY GOODMAN: Helena, we’re going to leave it there, but we’re going to continue after, the post-show, with an interview in Spanish. Helena Gualinga, speaking to us from Ecuador. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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