Days ago, voters in Ecuador approved a total ban on oil drilling in protected land in the Amazon, a 2.5m-acre tract in the Yasuní national park that might be the world’s most important biodiversity hotspot. The area is a Unesco-designated biosphere reserve and home to two non-contacted Indigenous groups. This could be a major step forward for the entire global climate justice movement in ways that are not yet apparent.
This vote is important not only for Ecuador and for the Indigenous peoples in the Yasuní, who now have hope of living in peace in perpetuity. It is also a potential model for how we can use the democratic process around the world to help slow or even stop the expansion of fossil fuels to the benefit of billions of people.
The Yasuní referendum proves that real democracy that respects the popular will can be a powerful tool for transitioning to a sustainable future. Ecuador’s state oil company, Petroecuador, had been producing nearly 60,000 barrels a day in the Yasuní. It now must figure out how to dismantle its entire operation and go home. When in history has a popular vote ever forced an oil company to cease active drilling? Never.
The Yasuní vote was not the result of a business decision made in a boardroom or government office. It was the product of two decades of grassroots organizing by citizens and activists like you and me. I know because I have been to Ecuador more than 250 times to work on a historic pollution case against Chevron on behalf of the Indigenous people there. Many of the same Indigenous leaders and activists who helped fight Chevron organized the Yasuní vote.
At the same time, the vote underscores how important it is to protect our increasingly fragile democracy. Without a robust democracy that allows citizens to place issues of critical importance on the ballot without the intermediation of elites, the Yasuní referendum never would have happened.
The flipside is that powerful oil and gas companies understand the threat a real citizen-based democracy poses to their power. They fear a society where citizens can put referendums on the ballot without the approval of business leaders. Those of us in the climate movement often can’t even stop to focus on the connection between democracy and climate justice because we’re so focused on dealing with the immediate crises taking place before our eyes, such as the Maui fire.
In the United States, it is not broadly known that the fossil fuel industry quietly funds a national lobbying campaign that has introduced draconian anti-protest bills in at least 18 states. These laws threaten anyone protesting at an oil or gas facility with huge fines and serious prison sentences; some states even impose criminal liabilities on non-profit advocacy groups that support the protesters. These are really laws of intimidation designed to stop protest before it happens. And they are also manifesting in other countries including Australia, the United Kingdom and Germany.
As a result, many Americans who have committed peaceful acts of non-violent civil disobedience – central to the birth of our country and a cornerstone of our political tradition – now face decades in prison. In Atlanta, Georgia, 42 people have been charged by prosecutors with “domestic terrorism” for trying to save the city’s last green canopy in the Weelaunee forest. Local police are trying to raze part of the forest to build a military-style police training academy, colloquially called “Cop City”, that already resulted in the first police killing of a climate activist in US history. (The police have said that the activist, Manuel Paez Terán, was used a weapon; activists dispute that claim.)
The Atlanta cases represent a frightening escalation of attacks on free speech and protest in the US. None of those charged – whom authorities accused mainly of vandalism and arson – committed a direct act of violence against another person. Nobody was injured other than the activist shot and killed by police while sitting in the forest.
That this is happening in a city considered to be one of the cradles of the American civil rights movement shows just how entwined corporate and police power have become in their efforts to erode democratic rights.
The prosecutions in Georgia are also occurring in a broader context where the right to vote has been seriously impaired. Voter suppression is now a regular feature in many US states, with ludicrous laws being passed to throw out votes. In this short century, two presidents have taken office in the US who did not win the popular vote. Votes are constantly thrown out for the thinnest of reasons, as journalists such as Greg Palast have meticulously documented.
On top of these threats to democracy at the state level, the US supreme court and its unelected, mostly far-right justices are weakening both our democracy and its ability to regulate the fossil fuel industry. The court has consistently approved measures like voter ID laws and felon disenfranchisement that make it more difficult for historically marginalized groups to vote. It has also, of late, decided its role is to strike down popular legislation, so who knows what they’d do to a popularly won ban on oil drilling.
I am an environmental justice and human rights lawyer, but one reason I spend significant time focused on issues of democracy is because I simply cannot do my work if our political system does not allow the political space to advocate freely. After I helped Indigenous peoples win a major pollution case in Ecuador, I was detained for almost three years in the US after being targeted with the nation’s first-ever corporate prosecution. My own case is a reminder that the normal rules of democracy can easily be suspended when entrenched economic interests face a serious enough threat to their bottom line.
As I write this, a heat dome in the US sits over the entire midwest and is affecting 100 million people. Fires have destroyed millions of acres of land. A tropical storm just smacked southern California for the first time, and the historic town of Lahaina in Hawaii burned to the ground with hundreds of people still unaccounted for. In the meantime, the oil industry is reporting record profits, creating enormous incentives for a small group of powerful shareholders to maintain their power by shrinking our democratic space.
What the referendum in Ecuador teaches us is that democratic processes when coupled with strong grassroots organizing can produce startlingly effective results. Taking a cue from our friends in that brave country, the next major move for the climate justice movement could be to launch a national campaign to put the simple question presented in Ecuador before the American people in every state that allows citizens to place their own questions on the ballot. The question is whether we can vote to end the destruction of our planet by the burning of fossil fuels.
It is clear we cannot trust either of the two major US political parties – both of which mostly support fossil fuel expansion – to adequately address this crisis. We simply cannot save the planet without first protecting and strengthening our democracy.
Steven Donziger is a human rights and environmental lawyer, a Guardian US columnist, and the creator of the Substack newsletter Donziger on Justice. He is speaking at the New York Society for Ethical Culture on 12 September.