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Lucien ChauvinAugust 25, 2023
Soldiers guard a polling station during the presidential election in Ayora, Ecuador, Sunday, Aug. 20, 2023. The election was called after President Guillermo Lasso dissolved the National Assembly by decree in May to avoid being impeached. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)Soldiers guard a polling station during the presidential election in Ayora, Ecuador, Sunday, Aug. 20, 2023. The election was called after President Guillermo Lasso dissolved the National Assembly by decree in May to avoid being impeached. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)

The Catholic Church played a key role in votes on the future of oil and mining in Ecuador that were held alongside the recent presidential and congressional elections. A proposal to cease crude oil extraction in Yasuní National Park passed with just under 60 percent of the vote, while a referendum to stop mining in the Chocó Andino, held only in the Quito metropolitan area, passed with 70 percent of the vote.

No clear presidential winner emerged from Ecuador’s snap elections on Aug. 20—the two top presidential candidates are heading for a runoff in October.

The church, while not taking sides in the political contests, went all in on the referendums to stop drilling for oil in Block 43 inside the Yasuní and to end mining in the Chocó Andino, a highland biosphere near the capital. The state-owned oil company, Petroecuador, currently produces 58,000 barrels of crude oil daily on Block 43.

The church went all in on the referendums to stop drilling on oil Block 43 inside the Yasuní and to end mining in the Chocó Andino, a highland biosphere near the capital.

Ecuador’s bishops say the clear victories are a testament to growing environmental awareness and the impact Pope Francis has had through his encyclical, “Laudato Si’,” and the apostolic exhortation, “Querida Amazonia.”

“The ‘yes’ vote is a vote for our common home in the Yasuní and the Chocó Andino,” said the Most Rev. Geovanni Paz, bishop of the Diocese of Latacunga in the highland province of Cotopaxi. “It is an answer to the call Pope Francis has made to us. I think it is a historic vote for Ecuador, the peoples of the Americas and the world itself,” Bishop Paz added.

Alex Siquihua, a Kichwa indigenous leader in the Orellana province, where the Yasuní National Park is located, said the result was a victory for the environment and a sign of “respect for those of us who live in harmony with nature.”

He said that the next step is to create livelihoods for the territory’s Indigenous people through ecologically sustainable enterprises in agriculture and tourism. “Like everyone, we need to earn a living, but we can do it without destroying our environment,” he said.

The church worked through a series of networks, including the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network (known by its initials in Spanish as REPAM), the National Ecological Pastoral Network (RENAPE) and the Churches and Mining Network to promote the votes to turn back mining and oil interests. It also collaborated with organizations and institutions across Ecuador’s civil society.

Adalberto Jiménez, O.F.M.Cap.: “I think that this result in Ecuador is a response to what Pope Francis asks from us. He is a beacon, the most important environmental defender because his vision is universal.”

“We worked with a large number of stakeholders. I think awareness was raised even more by what is going on in the world, with a drought in Uruguay, floods in Chile and fires in North America and Europe,” said the Most Rev. Adalberto Jiménez, O.F.M.Cap., of the Apostolic Vicariate of Aguarico and president of REPAM Ecuador. “People, especially young people, are opening their eyes to the destruction of our common home.”

REPAM and other church-based networks sponsored forums and educational campaigns in churches and with civil society groups. Different Ecuadorian bishops, led by Bishop Jiménez, spearheaded media actions, talking to journalists and getting the message out on the ballot measures through social and mainstream media—a combination of old-fashioned activism and social media campaigns.

“I think that this result in Ecuador is a response to what Pope Francis asks from us,” Bishop Jiménez said. “He is a beacon, the most important environmental defender because his vision is universal.” Bishop Jiménez said it is important to keep in mind that the votes, especially the plebiscite on Block 43, have been a long time in the making. The first efforts to bring the issue of limiting oil extraction to a national vote date back to 2007.

The oil block is part of the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (I.T.T.) oil field within the Yasuní National Park. The park, which covers nearly 2.5 million acres, is considered one of the most biologically diverse spots in the world and is home to several Indigenous peoples, including the Dugakaeri, Tagaeri and Taromenane people, who live in voluntary isolation.

The I.T.T. holds around 1.6 billion barrels of crude, making it the largest oil reserve in the country. Ecuador produces around 500,000 barrels of oil a day and oil accounts for close to one-third of the county’s export earnings.

The vote to limit oil and mining was achieved in the face of a massive campaign by industries and outgoing President Guillermo Lasso’s government urging voters to reject the ballot initiatives.

Former President Rafael Correa (2007-2017) announced in 2007 that his government would keep I.T.T. oil in the ground in exchange for $3.6 billion from the international community to set off losses. The plan never really took off, and 10 years ago, in August 2013, Mr. Correa opened the area to oil companies.

A civil society group, Yasunidos, has been working to block extractive industries in Yasuní since before the former president’s trade-off proposal to keep the oil in the ground. The group attempted to get signatures for a plebiscite in earlier elections but was turned down by authorities. A government referendum in 2018 included a question to limit the area within Yasuní for oil drilling. It passed with 67 percent, but former President Lenín Moreno still expanded drilling the following year.

The referendum in Chocó Andino was the second in Ecuador this decade on mining. Residents in the city of Cuenca, in the Azuay province, voted to prohibit mining in zones that could affect water resources.

Carlos Tubay, a pastoral outreach worker for REPAM, said the votes to limit oil and mining were achieved in the face of a massive campaign by industries and outgoing President Guillermo Lasso’s government urging voters to reject the ballot initiatives.

“The state campaigned that we would lose billions of dollars by not extracting oil or minerals, but Ecuadorians opted to say ‘yes’ to life, ‘yes’ to the Chocó Andino, ‘yes’ to the Yasuní,” Mr. Tubay said. “It was a protest vote, but also a vote to say there are other ways to live and protect our common home, which is what Pope Francis calls us to do.”

The referendums were part of a general election that has produced one of the toughest moments in Ecuador’s turbulent political history. Ecuador has had 47 presidents—seven this century—and 20 constitutions since 1830.

The election was conducted amid a rising tide of violence fueled by rival drug cartels, which have been a corrosive force in Ecuadorian society in recent years.

The snap election was called by Mr. Lasso in May after Congress moved to impeach him on corruption charges, relying on a mechanism in the 2008 constitution—the most recent—that empowered the president to dissolve the national assembly and call early presidential and legislative elections. The ploy ended his presidential term early, but it also put an end to the impeachment effort against him.

The election was conducted amid a rising tide of violence fueled by rival drug cartels, which have been a corrosive force in Ecuadorian society in recent years. Though Ecuador is not a cocaine-producing state, it is sandwiched between Colombia and Peru, the world's first- and second-largest producers of cocaine. That makes Ecuador an important transit state for drug shipments on their way to Europe and the United States.

The spike in violence in Ecuador is directly related to a battle by Colombian and Mexican drug gangs for control of the trafficking routes. Drug-fueled violence has led to other crimes and lawlessness in port cities, particularly Guayaquil, the country's largest city. Fernando Villavicencio, one of the eight candidates for president, had vowed to take a strong hand against the cartels. He was shot and killed in early August, the first presidential candidate to be assassinated in the country’s history.

According to the World Bank, per capita murders in Ecuador have gone from 5.8 per 100,000 people in 2018 to more than 25 per 100,000 people last year. The country’s prisons have become a proxy turf war among rival drug gangs, with 413 inmates killed in 11 prison massacres in 2021 and 2022—119 were killed in one incident in September 2021. The most recent prison massacre was on July 23, when 31 inmates at a prison in Guayaquil were found dismembered and burned. Another 14 inmates were injured.

Bishop Jiménez: “We have to make sure that these ‘yes’ votes are implemented and not only victories on paper.”

The bishops recognize that the electoral victories themselves may not be enough and that the results of the plebiscite could be deferred or ignored as Ecuadorians contend with the country’s mounting political crisis.

Bishop Jiménez noted that other recent clear victories for communities and the environment have been stalled or ignored by government officials. He highlighted a court ruling in 2021 in the Sucumbíos province in favor of nine young girls who had sued to put an end to industrial flaring to burn off natural gas at oil wells. Bishop Jiménez said enforcement of that ruling has been pushed back, and oil companies are now lobbying to have until 2030 to eliminate 443 flares around the country.

“In Ecuador, sometimes cases are won, but they are Pyrrhic victories,” he said. “We have to make sure that these ‘yes’ votes are implemented and not only victories on paper.”

The government announced on Aug. 21 that it would comply with the referendum results and that Petroecuador would wind down production on Block 43. Bishop Jiménez said REPAM and other groups would be there to monitor progress on those commitments.

Bishop Paz said ensuring compliance with the vote was critical. He believes Ecuador has a chance to show the world that there are other avenues to economic development besides accepting predatory systems that put profit over people and the environment.

He was in Brazil when the vote was conducted, attending a meeting of the Churches and Mining Network. He said Ecuador could serve as an example for neighboring countries Colombia and Peru, where communities are also opposed to extractive industries and have organized plebiscites. Peru has held several non-binding plebiscites on mining, while in Colombia a binding plebiscite was held in 2017 to stop a mine in the Cajamarca district in the Tolima department.

Former president Correa’s party, Citizen Revolution, came out on top in the election, with its presidential candidate, former congresswoman Luisa González, placing first with more than 33 percent of the vote. She will face Daniel Noboa in October, a political newcomer and son of the country’s wealthiest man, Alvaro Noboa. He received 24 percent of the vote as leader of the National Democratic Action party.

Citizen Revolution will be the top party in Congress, securing 51 of the 137 seats. Mr. Noboa’s party won 12 seats, while the party that had been led by Mr. Villavicencio won 28 seats. Seven other parties won the remaining seats in the unicameral chamber.

During the campaign, candidates focused more on the nation’s growing violence and economic development plans than they did the environment, but Bishop Paz said that would change during the runoff because of the results of the oil and mining plebiscites. “Ecuadorians have come to understand the long-term consequences of mega-extractive projects and they have rejected them,” Bishop Paz said.

“Oil and mining may generate some money now, but they are negative in the long run. People will be paying attention to this in October.”

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