The people of Ecuador have spoken: in with Amazon protection, out with oil and gas. On Sunday 20 August Ecuadorians hit the voting booths. Alongside a snap general election, citizens voted in two pivotal referendums. Notably, the future of oil and gas extraction in a key Amazon rainforest block was on the ballot paper.
For years, fossil fuel companies have been drilling in the biodiverse Yasuni National Park. The protected area is home to two of the world’s last isolated Indigenous populations. Moreover, the rainforest is teeming with over 1,300 tree, 600 bird, 400 fish, and 170 mammal species.
Since 2014, Yasunidos – a coalition movement of environmental, civic, and Indigenous groups – has called for a referendum to determine the future of drilling inside a block overlapping the park. After years of demands for a referendum, in May the country’s highest court authorised the vote to decide the fate of “block 43”.
Otherwise referred to as the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) block, the license area contributes 12% of the 466,000 barrels of oil produced every day by Ecuador. Ecuadorians voted not only to stop new oil development in its tracks but also to end operations there for good. The referendum result means that fossil fuel projects in the ITT block must now cease within a year.
Here, Indigenous communities, rainforest biodiversity, and the people of Ecuador have triumphed over big oil. However, it’s no thanks to the Global North. The end of oil and gas drilling in a key block of protected Amazon rainforest could have happened a decade sooner if Global North nations had stepped up to the task. Worse still, these same nations have fuelled the industry’s reckless expansion in the world’s largest tropical rainforest.
Global North snubbed opportunity to end Amazon oil
The campaign to end oil drilling in the ITT block began in 2007. The then-Ecuadorian president, Rafael Correa, launched the Yasuni ITT initiative. It sought to keep 20% of Ecuador’s oil reserves in the ground. Specifically, the plan called for international governments and the private sector to pay Ecuador US $3.6bn over 13 years to do so.
Naturally, oil-captured Global North governments snubbed this opportunity to reign in oil and gas rainforest destruction. Germany, for example, quietly backed out of $50m-a-year pledge to the initiative.
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Of course, this tracks. Extractive, exploitative Global North nations have rarely stumped up the cash to protect the planet without the promise of financial gain. For example, between 2019 and 2020, Oxfam found that the bulk of Global North climate finance to the Global South had been through loans.
Moreover, Global North initiatives to protect the Amazon from extractive companies have hinged on generating “carbon credits” for these very same destructive corporations. Often, these credits serve to legitimise corporations’ climate-wrecking activities in exchange for providing ‘protection’ for areas of forest that were at low risk in the first place.
Chevron’s rampant rainforest destruction
To make matters worse, these extractive profiteers didn’t offer something for nothing, either. Any pledges they made to protect the Amazon will came at a cost – and it wasn’t from their bottom-line.
When they weren’t greenwashing with reckless abandon, fossil fuel majors were manufacturing quid pro quos to avoid accountability. Specifically, in 2012 the HuffPost speculated over Chevron’s potential donation to the Yasuni ITT initiative. In particular, it reported on discussions with “longtime government insider” Ivonne Baki that:
Word on the street is that Chevron authorized Baki to propose the idea of a $500 million “donation” to the initiative in exchange for quashing the case.
The case in question concerns a decades-long legal fight by Indigenous communities against the destructive oil corporation.
Specifically, the case sought to hold Chevron accountable for its toxic legacy in Ecuador. The US fossil fuel firm’s subsidiary wrought death and destruction in the Ecuadorian Amazon for decades.
US oil firm Texaco (now Chevron) struck oil in a block in Yasuni in 1964. Across 26 years, the company dumped 650,000 barrels of crude oil and 16bn gallons of toxic waste into the rivers and soils of the rainforest region. Notably, the company did this deliberately. By flouting wastewater regulations, Texaco made an additional $3 profit per barrel.
Whilst the company profiteered from this pollution, the Indigenous communities of the region dealt with its devastating consequences. Invariably, the costs were borne by thousands affected by cancer, birth defects, and other devastating health impacts. Unsurprisingly, climate criminal Chevron refused to pay the $9.5bn that the Ecuadorian courts awarded to the victims of its Amazon atrocities.
Global North propping up Amazon oil and gas
On top of all this, whilst foreign fossil fuel majors been ransacking rainforest reserves of oil, Global North nations have been its main importers.
In 2021, nonprofits Amazon Watch and Stand.earth found that the United States imported 66% of Ecuador’s Amazon oil exports in 2020. Unsurprisingly, it named long-term Amazon-destroyer Chevron as one of the top three refiners of the exported oil.
New research from Stand.earth in July also highlighted how eight major US, European, and Brazilian banks have financed the oil and gas sector in the Amazon. Notably, the report showed that US Citibank has funded Yasuni ITT block operator PetroEcuador. Stand.earth argued that the deal:
lent much needed credibility to the state-run oil company, who went on to start a massive drilling campaign with Schlumberger in the ITT Block in Yasuni National Park.
Needless to say, Global North goodwill goes to greenwashing and greed. Moreover, rich nations and their corporate puppeteers were never going to support a campaign that could spell their undoing. Instead, they continue to plough money into plundering the Global South’s oil-rich reserves.
Ecuador’s decisive referendum stands as a shining example of the power of Indigenous and civic voices – and Amazon communities lead the way in bringing this extractive industry to a close.
Additional reporting via Agence France-Presse.
Feature image via JIwad/Wikimedia, cropped and resized to 1910 by 1000, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0Support us and go ad-free
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