After a decade of protest, Yasunidos have forced a referendum on the fate of Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park.
Since 2013, the Yasunidos, after enduring mass surveillance, harassment, and detainment by Ecuadorian authorities, have achieved their goal of a popular referendum on the fate of Yasuní National Park.
Selling Your Soul for a Dollar
In the 21st century, we can recognize oil and gas extraction’s environmental damage. However, that doesn’t change the fact we still, ironically enough, rely on it for so much of our daily lives.
Oil and gas remain one of the most profitable ventures individuals can enter. New oil and gas installations continue to be created, exploration for oil continues to occur, and the profits for those running these operations still flow in. These profits and installations continue to have widespread and long-term damage to the individuals living by them and the world.
However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t fierce opposition to this extractive and legacy form of energy production. Throughout the world, new dedicated environmental groups continue to be formed, and old ones continue to have the energy needed to make their voices heard.
In Ecuador, this is especially the case. This is the story of how the Yasunidos have beaten the odds to force a referendum to determine if oil and gas companies will be allowed to exploit Yasuní National Park.
The Epic Story of Yasuní
The story of the Yasuní National Park is an interesting one. Yasuní National Park has long been recognized for its abounding biodiversity and the presence of indigenous groups who have refused to make contact with the wider country and world.
These groups, namely the Tagaeri and the Taromenae, have lived in Yasuní National Park for generations and have maintained their ancient traditions relying only on the land and each other for survival.
Recognizing the uniquely biodiverse ecosystem, the area was designated as a national park in 1979. In 1989, Yasuní National Park was designated as a UNESCO biosphere reserve, but that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been interest from other groups.
Yasuní National Park sits on one of the largest oil reserves in the entire world, and oil and gas companies have been trying to extract every last drop for decades. Within the borders of Yasuní, seven oil blocks already exist where oil companies pump the oil out of the ground.
However, ITT (Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini), also known as Block 43, has remained untapped and, resultingly, has been the center of a fierce debate within Ecuador.
On one hand, Ecuador is not a rich nation, and extracting this natural resource would help the economy, however, on the other hand, that means likely damaging this beautiful area even more than it already has been, with unforeseen consequences, as well as continuing to contribute to the violation of the natural rights the indigenous population has to its way of life.
In 2007, the Correra government of Ecuador posed a plan to maintain the integrity of Block 43 by getting other nations to compensate the country for maintaining Yasuní National Park’s natural ecology, specifically to the tune of $350 million.
However, the plan failed, and they could only raise a fraction of the desired amount. So, the president decided to green-light oil extraction in the area, but not before posing a referendum to determine whether or not to go through with it after a fierce backlash from a coalition of environmentalists, feminists, human rights advocates, and indigenous people.
This coalition ended up naming themselves the Yasunidos. They advocated for the institution of a popular referendum to determine the fate of Block 43 in Yasuní National Park; however, they needed to achieve a goal of 583,000 signatures for it to take place.
They surpassed that goal significantly, specifically by 174,623 signatures. In an infuriating turn of events, however, the National Electoral Council invalidated the signatures of 400,000 votes, claiming they were fraudulent.
Pressing on, Despite the Odds
The Yasunidos persevered. They expressed their dissent with the result through press conferences, peaceful protests, and campaigns and demanded that the government validate the signatures and respect public opinion.
However, they were met with persecution which, while not uncommon in Latin America, is nauseating nonetheless. They faced harassment at many lengths throughout their work, detainment, and, most shockingly, mass surveillance.
According to an intelligence report leaked in 2015, the Correa government had meticulously spied on the protesters since the group’s founding in 2013.
Pedro Bermeo, who was only 19 when he founded the group, spoke on the challenges he and the group had faced, “It was incredibly tough to witness intelligence reports, the surveillance, the threats and intimidation I personally faced—all because we were demanding our rights and the rights of Mother Earth.”
Unrelenting, the group, for the last decade, has continued to oppose extractivist policies in Ecuador, irrespective of what party the government was occupied by.
In 2021, their work was again validated by a journalistic report that found that the National Electoral Council was marred by fraud and had been designed to discredit and disqualify most of the votes the Yasunidos cast.
Recognizing the severity of the situation, the Ecuadorian Constitutional Court issued a landmark ruling on May 9th, 2023, declaring the signature verification process violated the rights of the Yasunidos.
This verdict has now had the effect of finally pushing forward the original goal of the Yasunidos. On August 20th, 2023, Ecuadorians will be asked in a historic referendum, “Are you in favor of the Ecuadorian government keeping oil from the ITT, known as Block 43, indefinitely underground?”
The unwavering opposition, resilience, and clarity of purpose of the Yasunidos have paved the way for this vote to happen, inspiring the entire world.
As they await the hopefully positive outcome of this referendum, the Yasunidos show us that not only is it possible to do this, but it is necessary to preserve and maintain the natural ecosystems that we often take for granted.