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    Rays of (Green) Light

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    ‘Gloom-and-doom’ is your typical leitmotif in the land of sustainability. News of brutal heat, devastating floods or droughts, and raging forest fires remind us daily of the ticking climate-change bomb. War- and peace-time human rights violations are ripe. Almost a million plant and animal species are facing extinction due to our own species’ negligence. And don’t even get me started on the enormous gap between what we say and what we do about it all. Let’s leave the scandalous greenwashing to the Laundromat.

    Yet, every now and again, rays of hope and light do manage to break through the clouds and present us with a reason to celebrate. Given the scarcity of such occasions, I believe we should make the most of them.

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    This week, I’d like to raise a glass (of organic and locally sourced beverage, preferably) to the people of Ecuador!

    Like many other environmental nerds, I, too, had a hard time falling asleep last Sunday night, keenly awaiting the results of the historic referendum taking place in the South American country, alongside the presidential elections. Would the people of Ecuador vote to continue drilling in the Yasuní National Park, one of the most biodiverse corners of the Amazon and home of some of the last Indigenous people on the planet, or would they opt for keeping the oil underground?

    The dilemma was real, mind you. After all, oil is the country’s most important export. The government, estimating that Ecuador stands to lose more than a billion USD in revenue per year if the oil is left underground, had been campaigning hard for drilling to continue. Economists had been warning that blocking oil extraction in the park would mean more austerity for the cash-strapped country. Earlier in August, Fitch had downgraded Ecuador’s credit score to CCC+, below investment grade, partly motivated by an anticipated fall in fiscal revenues due to a drop in oil output if the vote succeeded. Not to mention that the country was in political turmoil following the assassination of one of the presidential candidates.

    The victory for the climate, biodiversity and Indigenous rights feels, thus, so much sweeter! After counting most of the votes, it is clear that 58.96 % of the Ecuadorians are prepared to brave said negative economic consequences to preserve this unique environment. Kudos!

    It is a long story, of course. To drill or not to drill in Yasuní has been a matter of debate for decades. President Rafael Correa’s radical conservation effort has become a case study by now. For years, he persevered with his innovative attempt to get fiscally compensated by the rich world for leaving Yasuní’s oil reserves untouched. When the money from the US and Europe failed to materialise, though, the president abandoned his plan. The struggling developing nation turned to China instead, and the energy-thirsty Asian giant was more than happy to grant loans, preferably in exchange for oil.

    Young Ecuadorian environmentalists, however, were not as easily discouraged as their president. A new organisation, Yasunidos, was born, enlisting thousands of volunteers prepared to keep fighting to preserve the Amazon region. Side by side with Indigenous people, they have led a decade-long legal battle to make last week’s referendum possible.

    And so, Ecuador has now become one of the first countries in the world to set limits on resource extraction through a democratic vote. Petroecuador, the state-owned oiled company, will have to cease operations on the edge of Yasuní National Park, dismantle its drilling infrastructure, and reforest and restore the drilling site. Admittedly, the oil will keep flowing in dozens of other sites in the Ecuadorean Amazon, but for today, let us savour the victory.

    I can’t help but ask myself how I would have voted had I been in their shoes. George H.W. Bush had one famous answer, “The American way of life is not up for negotiations.” Ecuadorians opted for a different future. What would you do?

    Image courtesy of NordSIP
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