Ecuadorians have voted to ban oil drilling in one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, the Yasuní National Park, situated in the Amazon rainforest.
With more than 92% of the votes counted, nearly 59% of voters rejected the oil drilling while 41% voted in favor, according to the National Electoral Council of Ecuador (CNE) on Monday morning.
The referendum comes as the impacts of human-caused climate change accelerate, as the world continues to burn fossil fuels. Last month was the planet’s hottest June on record, and some scientists warn that the Amazon is heading towards a dangerous tipping point.
The Yasuní National Park park spans around 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres) at the meeting point of the Amazon, the Andes and the Equator. Just one hectare of Yasuní land supposedly contains more animal species than the whole of Europe and more tree species than exist in all of North America.
But underneath the park lies Ecuador’s largest reserve of crude oil.
In 2007, President Rafael Correa proposed that the international community give Ecuador $3.6 billion to leave Yasuní undisturbed. But the plan failed.
In 2016, the Ecuadorian state oil company began drilling in Block 43 – around 0.01% of the National Park – which today produces more than 55,000 barrels a day, amounting to around 12% of Ecuador’s oil production.
Yasunidos, an environmental collective, has been pushing for the vote to ban drilling in the park for a decade. In May they and other groups secured a victory when the country’s constitutional court authorized the vote to be included on the ballot of the presidential election held on August 20.
Some politicians, including energy minister Fernando Santos, have argued that a ban it would have negative impacts on Ecuador’s economy.
“It could cause huge damage to the country,” Santos told local radio in June, according to a Reuters report, estimating the country could lose $1.2 billion in revenues. He also denied there has been environmental harm from the drilling.
But environmental and Indigenous groups argued that Ecuador needs to move away from fossil fuels and protect the Amazon, saying that other economic activities such as eco-tourism could help fill the gap.
“This referendum presents a huge opportunity for us to create change in a tangible way,” Helena Gualinga, an Indigenous rights advocate from a remote village in the Ecuadorian Amazon, told CNN.
In a post on X (the platform formerly known as Twitter), Yasunidos called the result “a historic victory for Ecuador and for the planet!”
Mitch Anderson, executive director of the non-profit Amazon Frontlines, said in a statement: “In one fell swoop, the Ecuadorian people struck a mighty blow to the oil industry, protected one of the most biodiverse forests in the Amazon, and showed the world what grassroots climate action really looks like.”
But Fernando L. Benalcazar, a senior consultant at APD Proyectos, which works with the extractive industry, said that Ecuadorians had voted to ban drilling “without understanding the implications for the economic and social development of Ecuador.”
“This decision brings a tremendous financial burden, hard to be offset in the short term,” he told CNN.
The referendum took place alongside the presidential and legislative elections on Sunday.
Luisa González, of the Movimiento Revolución Ciudadana party, took the lead in the first round of the elections, which have been marred by political assassinations and violence driven by criminal organizations vying to control the country’s drug trafficking routes.
González will face second-place finisher Daniel Noboa in a run-off election in October as no candidate won more than 50% of the ballot.