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Opinion

The people of Ecuador voted to protect the planet. Now it’s time for the international community to step up

Ecuador's brave and historic vote to end oil drilling in the Yasuni National Park is only the beginning. Now the world needs to come together to help the transition from fossil fuels

A Waorani Indigenous man goes hunting. Oil extraction has put his way of life at risk in the Yasuni National Park, one of the most diverse biosphere reserves in the world. (Photo by Galo Paguay / AFP) (Photo by GALO PAGUAY/AFP via Getty Images)

History was made on August 20. The people of Ecuador voted to become the first country in the world to limit fossil fuel extraction through direct democracy – making them a global trailblazer. Amid an election overshadowed by unprecedented violence – August saw three political leaders, including presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio, murdered – this news offers a beacon of hope. With a margin of almost 20%, more than 5.2 million people voted in favour compared with 3.6 million against. Which means the development of all new oil wells in the Yasuní national park in the Amazon, one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet is now set to be halted.

This is of particular significance given that Ecuador’s economy relies heavily on oil exports. Indeed, it is part of the inter-state conflict surrounding the just transition: who, globally should be halting oil and fossil fuel extraction first? Who will be expected to face the consequences of continuing destructive practices on one hand, and stopping on the other, at the risk of economic loss? Conversely, who is profiting from the choices we make and who is asked to make sacrifices?

The conflict here was on two levels: that of the state, and that of class. Oil-rich countries that developed their oil resources became rich – while oil executives who are also in governments became billionaires and, to some extent, were able to give their citizens a higher standard of living. Ecuador could have also aspired to, and followed, this model.

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But campaigners in Ecuador have shown they want another way. They recognise that it will only be transnational corporations and local elites who’ll get richer if oil extraction continues – at the great expense of campesino and indigenous populations who would have continued to be driven off their lands and communities.

Crucially, this is not a position that Ecuador should have ever had to face. Environmental justice need not have been placed in opposition to economic justice. The two can go hand in hand. Were former president Rafael Correa’s calls 16 years ago for the international community to contribute $3.6bn in exchange for a ban on drilling heeded, this would have been possible. But it is not too late for the international community – particularly rich nations – to act now.

Indeed, it is now imperative that the international community actively gives political, economic and financial support to hold up Ecuador’s transformative decision. This would not simply be a “nice thing to do”: it is a matter of reparative justice. If our governments truly want to prove they are serious about ending climate catastrophe, payment in the form of reparations is an essential tool, ensuring that the progressive, transformative climate action that is absolutely essential to our planet’s wellbeing is made possible.

If they’re looking for a way to fund this, they can start by taxing the mammoth profits made by oil-polluting companies who, while our planet burns and people are stretched to the brink in a cost of living crisis, are raking in billions. A recent study by environmental non-profit One Earth estimated that, were the world’s top fossil fuel companies to pay compensation to communities most damaged by their destructive practices, this would amount to at least $209 billion annually. It is also now more urgent than ever for leaders in the global north to enact a just transition away from fossil fuels. The time for lip service is over.

The battle is not over in Ecuador, either. The current Ecuadorian government has stated that it is not willing to respect the result of the democratic vote. Ecuadorian climate and environmental justice movements will continue the battle to see the result respected and implemented in a way that is fair and just for Ecuador.

The victory of Ecuadorian campaigners who fought tirelessly to make this happen should serve as inspiration for our climate movements in the UK, resisting oil development from Cumbria to Rosebank. Ecuador’s choice to reject oil extraction reveals the inherent contradiction at the heart of Rishi Sunak’s eager embrace of more oil, coal and gas. The UK can, and must, also say no to mining and yes to life and the planet. Ecuadorians have blazed a bold, fearless path. Now the rest of the world must take note and demonstrate solidarity.

Dorothy Guerrero is an author, speaker and activist from the Philippines and Head of Policy and Advocacy at the UK-based campaigning organisation Global Justice Now.

Ivonne Yanez is a founding member of Acción Ecológica, the international network Oilwatch and of the Plataforma Latinoamericana y del Caribe de Justicia Climática.

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