This story was originally published in theguardian
On Sunday, the people of Ecuador will vote in a referendum to decide whether or not to destroy my home. I am not speaking of the house that my family and I built by hand, but of the land of my ancestors, the territory and its guardians: the trees, the rivers and jaguars, the people who live there, the soil where my grandmother is buried, the reservoirs of knowledge and medicine, our spirits and those of the forest.
Perhaps you have never heard of the Yasuní national park in the Ecuadorian Amazon. If you were to walk there with me, I could teach you to listen to the wind, to interpret the songs of birds and read the leaves and the bark of trees. But to give you an idea of the place in the language you understand, I’ll tell you that Yasuní, an area of one million hectares, is one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. There are more tree species in a single hectare of Yasuní than across Canada and the United States combined. Yasuní is also the home of the Tagaeri and Taromenane communities: the last two Indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation in Ecuador.
Can you imagine the immense size of one million hectares? The recent fires in Quebec burned a million hectares of forest. And so the oil industry hopes to burn Yasuní. It has already begun in fact, with the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) oil project on the eastern edge of the park.
It may seem unfair that the fate of one’s home should be put to a vote. But we fought for a decade to make this referendum happen. In 2013, the then president, Rafael Correa, cancelled a proposal whereby international donors would have paid Ecuador to forgo oil drilling in the national park. Correa said that the international community had failed to support the country, pledging less than 20% of the necessary funds. The Ecuadorian state oil company began drilling in the park in 2016, and today produces more than 57,000 barrels a day, about 12% of Ecuador’s oil production.
Environmentalists gathered 757,623 signatures to put the decision to protect the Yasuní National Park to a vote. After years of legal struggle, Ecuador’s highest court validated the referendum and the vote was set for 20 August, the same day as the first round of Ecuador’s presidential election.
The question voters will answer is: ‘“Do you agree with the Ecuadorian government keeping the ITT, known as Block 43, crude oil indefinitely in the subsoil?” Four recent polls showed the yes vote leading with a significant margin. Those polls, however, were conducted before presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio was gunned down after leaving a campaign event on 9 August. This cowardly murder sent shockwaves through the country. President Guillermo Lasso declared a 60-day national state of emergency, suspending many civil liberties and granting the military control over public security.
But the violence that has been tormenting Ecuador for the past five years will not be settled by sending more armed men into the streets. Just as the mining and oil companies expand throughout the forest, purchasing politicians and destroying everything in their path to drill and blast, pump and extract, so the illegal drug companies that you call cartels buy politicians, police forces and armies to expand across cities and nations, killing those who get in their way. Militarising the country to stop drug violence is like sending more engineers to stop oil drilling.
So much is at stake on Sunday, when the people of Ecuador can choose to remove the engineers from the forest.
Can you imagine a world where people peacefully choose not to destroy the world? Can you imagine a future where people decide to protect the future? Can you imagine a present where we decide to leave the oil in the ground? Such a decision would not only allow life to continue to flourish in Yasuní, it would also create a precedent and an inspiration for others to make similar choices: to leave the gold dust inside the mountain, to leave the trees standing, to leave the rain in the aquifers and the rivers.
The opposition will say that oil brings prosperity, that it provides jobs, salaries and development. But this is a lie. The oil industry is a global leader of false promises. For decades, it has lied about its operations. It has lied about the climate crisis. It has lied about the lives it has destroyed. In the Ecuadorian Amazon, oil companies have brought only death, corruption, contamination and poverty.
And the vote on Sunday will either condemn to death or let Yasuní live. The importance of that alone is more than can be easily grasped. And yet the vote is even more than that: it is a vote on the possibility of limiting greed and plunder in the name of life and respect. It is a vote that will resonate around the planet.
We are hopeful, though cautiously so. If the no vote wins, we will continue to defend the Earth and our territory as we Indigenous peoples always have. In 2019, we successfully protected more than 180,000 hectares from oil drilling in the Waorani Pastaza territory. And if the yes vote wins, we will mobilise to make sure the oil companies stop drilling immediately, and that they leave our sacred forests at the eastern edge of Yasuní. And we will share the experience of this direct action with people all over the world. Now, with the dangers of the climate crisis all around us, the world needs examples of political action that empower people at the grassroots.