People’s participation as a safeguard of green rights
In the context of the referendum in Ecuador on August 20th, 2023, Sebastián Abad-Jara reflects on the importance of public participation to protect green rights and ensure the protection of natural sanctuaries such as the Yasuní and the Andean-Chocó forests, which are crucial in the fight against climate change.
Ecuador has set a path to assuring respect for the right to a healthy environment, the rights of nature, and other green rights. Through the exercise of participatory democracy, the South American country redefined the economic and social model it wanted for the future and its role in combating global boiling. This was achieved by two crucial votes last August 20th, as Ecuadoreans voted against oil and mining activities to protect two natural areas that host part of the country’s rainforest.
Ecuadoreans have decided not to exploit oil beneath the surface of Yasuní National Park, one of the world’s most bio-diverse places and home of some of the last indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation. On the same day, a local consultation approved the prohibition of mining activities in the Andean Chocó, a fundamental territory in controlling the region’s temperature and combating the climate emergency.
This vote is fundamental for Ecuador’s future and the fight against the climate crisis. The country shares a portion of the Amazon rainforest, which is an essential asset in mitigating and lessening the effects of the climate crisis. Exploiting these natural resources for more than 50 years has not enhanced the socio-economic situation of the communities surrounding the exploitation sites and, on the contrary, has threatened the delicate ecological balance of these ecosystems.
This post delves into the importance of places like the Yasuní National Park and the Andean-Chocó in Ecuador to stabilize the world’s climate by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, explores the importance of citizen’s participation to respect international and human rights obligations, and highlights alternatives to resource exploitation while promoting internationally recognized green rights.
1/ Rainforests as climate stabilizers
Large rainforests like the Yasuní and the Andean-Chocó are key elements of our global water cycle. Through transpiration, where plants release water from their leaves during photosynthesis, rainforests add moisture to the atmosphere. This moisture then forms rain clouds, leading to rainfall within the area and surrounding regions.
A significant portion of the rainforest’s precipitation is generated through this process; for example, in the Amazon, transpiration leads to 50-75% of the rain in the region. By maintaining the water cycle, rainforests help prevent droughts and ensure water availability for ecosystems and humans.
Rainforests are also exceptional carbon sinks, with the Amazon rainforest alone storing an estimated 86 billion tons of carbon, absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it in its vegetation. When rainforests are intact, they work as carbon storages, helping offset the excess CO2 produced by human activities, mitigating the greenhouse effect and climate change.
These two functions of rainforests are crucial global climate stabilizers. According to scientists, the “increasing CO2 concentrations on the greenhouse effect can be compensated by a relatively minor change in the hydrological cycle over land”. Natural forests can perform such stabilization, and not necessarily by reforestation, because “only a natural ecosystem with a full suite of all the necessary biological species can do it.”
Due to its pivotal function in regulating the water cycle and absorbing carbon dioxide, any activity contributing to forest destruction disrupts these cycles, leading to fluctuations in the magnitude of the greenhouse effect and loss of climate stability.
Covering 1,682.000 hectares and declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1989, Yasuní Park harbors a vast area of original natural vegetation, primarily tropical rainforests that serve as a carbon sink. Data reveals that one hectare in the valley area of the Park can store approximately 100.5 tons of carbon. In comparison, one hectare in the hill is about 155 tons, equivalent to emissions from 500 vehicles consuming 60 gallons of gasoline per month.
In addition, this tropical rainforest is home to various unique plant and animal species. Preserving the Park’s biodiversity is essential for maintaining ecosystem resilience and ensuring these species continue contributing to climate regulation.
Protecting the Park from oil exploitation is vital. Official data reveals that in the Ecuadorian Amazon, an average of 12 spills per month occur, and the burning of the petroleum reserves could release 208m tons of CO2 into the atmosphere and further contribute to climate change.
The Andean-Chocó forests, subject to a popular consultation in Ecuador, have an extension of 286,805 hectares and were recognized as a Biosphere Reserve in 2018. Aside from its unique biodiversity, it is a crucial carbon reservoir as its forests can absorb around 250 tons of carbon per hectare. The characteristics of its dense forests give central assistance in carbon sequestration, removing at least 266,000 tons of carbon annually and significantly mitigating global warming.
These forests host five water basins that supply water to communities within and outside the reserve. Data from the National Water Secretariat of the Pichincha Province reveals that the area generates a flow of 291.856 liters per second, benefiting over 20,000 people with potable water and nearly 900,000 people through irrigation or electricity.
The Yasuní and the Andean-Chocó are essential in the fight against the climate crisis. These regions’ deforestation and oil and mining activities pose significant environmental and climate threats. Their vast rainforests and the ecological services that they provide are critical components of global climate stabilization that we, as human beings, must protect.
2/ Potential State’s obligations to protect rainforests
The 1992 UNFCCC is the primary international framework for addressing climate change. It emphasizes the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities (CBDR-RC+), recognizing that developed and developing countries have different historical responsibilities and capacities in addressing climate change.
As a party to the UNFCCC, Ecuador must work towards achieving the convention’s objectives, including stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. While developed countries are more responsible for supporting developing nations, all parties, including Ecuador, are expected to contribute to the collective global effort.
The Paris Agreement, which entered into force in 2016, aims to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, with efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Ecuador’s obligations under the Agreement include submitting nationally determined contributions (NDCs) outlining the country’s climate actions and targets.
These NDCs must be ambitious and updated every five years to enhance the level of climate action. Ecuador should also improve its adaptive capacity and strengthen resilience to climate change impacts, especially for vulnerable communities and ecosystems.
To fulfill its obligations, Ecuador must undertake several measures. It should enhance renewable energy sources and energy efficiency, reducing reliance on fossil fuels. As said, implementing sustainable practices, like forest protection, is crucial to sequestering carbon dioxide and preserving biodiversity. Reducing other activities with high rates of greenhouse gas emissions must also be considered.
Ecuador also bears obligations concerning international human rights law. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights case law and Advisory Opinion 23/17 has emphasized that the right to a healthy environment is a human right and enables the realization of other rights, such as life or personal integrity, guaranteed by the American Convention on Human Rights.
The UN Human Rights Council has also recognized the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment as a human right. Moreover, the UN Human Rights Committee, in General Comment 36 and the Portillo Cáceres v. Paraguay, recognized that environmental degradation can adversely affect the effective enjoyment of the right to life, hence acknowledging the “undeniable link” between the protection of the environment and human rights.
The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, in General Comment 14, equally recognized that the right to health embraces a wide range of socio-economic factors like a healthy environment. States, including Ecuador, must ensure these rights are protected in the context of climate change, as environmental degradation can directly affect access to these resources.
In this sense, Ecuador must adopt measures to protect the environment and mitigate climate change to ensure the rights and well-being of the indigenous peoples that are in the Yasuní, the population of Pichincha that benefits from the ecological services provided by the Andean-Chocó, as well as the current and future generations of Ecuador.
The August 20th referendum was essential because it contributed to setting the pathway for the protection and enforceability of green rights, necessary for the continued enjoyment of human rights. The results in Ecuador illustrate that citizen participation plays a pivotal role in applying such obligations at a domestic level and, in general, in developing international environmental law.
Public consultations, as the ones carried on in Ecuador, led to the recognition and protection by the States of the so-called “green rights” of citizens, such as the right to consultation, to live with dignity, the right to air, water, and a healthy environment, among others. It is an example of how a State-centric approach towards international law is increasingly old-fashioned since people are playing an essential role in guaranteeing the protection of nature and pushing States to fulfill their international obligations towards the climate crisis.
3/ Further options to maintain economic activities in climate stabilizer resources
Ecuador does have other options to exploit its natural resources in the Yasuní and Andean-Chocó, protect its people, contribute to mitigating climate change, and comply with international law. These include sustainable and environmentally friendly approaches to ensure long-term benefits, equitable distribution of wealth, and accountability.
It has been reported that the estimated oil recoverable reserves have significantly decreased in Ecuador. In 2007, the estimated recoverable reserves were 846m barrels, but only 136m are believed to remain. A study conducted in 2019 suggested that by 2029, oil might no longer be the country’s primary source of income. In addition, evidence indicates that rainforests are losing resilience due to their exploitation, with profound implications for biodiversity, carbon storage, and climate change globally.
This highlights the need for Ecuador to explore alternative sources of revenue and economic growth beyond fossil fuels. Some potential avenues for Ecuador are participating in the carbon market or issuing green bonds to finance climate change adaptation and mitigation projects.
The carbon market operates as a mechanism to incentivize the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. It allows countries or companies to buy and sell carbon credits, where one carbon credit represents the right to emit one ton of carbon dioxide or its equivalent. Countries in Latin America, such as Mexico, Chile, and Brazil, have already engaged in the carbon market. In this regard, Ecuador can participate in this market by selling carbon credits to other nations or entities looking to offset their emissions.
Ecuador can also benefit from the green bonds market, which involves issuing debt instruments to finance projects, assets, or activities that support climate change adaptation and mitigation. These bonds are labeled “green” to demonstrate that their proceeds will be ring-fenced exclusively for environmentally friendly projects.
As of 2021, Brazil and Chile are leading the issuance of green bonds in the Latin American region. Ecuador has already taken steps in this direction by issuing green bonds to finance renewable energy (USD 150m) and social (USD 420m) projects.
In Ecuador, there are already technical regulations developed by the Quito Stock Exchange to control these bonds. Ecuador can attract investors by prioritizing environmentally responsible initiatives. This funding can support projects that empower communities, protect the environment, and promote sustainable Yasuní and Andean-Chocó practices. Ecuador can position itself as a key actor in sustainable finance and contribute to global efforts in combating climate change.
This transformation will require strategic planning, strong governance, and a commitment to science-based decision-making by governments and companies, allowing Ecuador to protect its natural heritage and benefit economically from a rapidly evolving green economy.
The world must turn its eyes to Ecuador. Based on a mutually beneficial relationship and respect for the country’s sovereignty, countries from the Global North and prominent pollutants should trust and decide to invest in or support projects that contribute to improving the capacities of communities, protecting the environment, and controlling the rise of temperatures.
The referendum resulted in protecting green rights, recognizing peoples’ ancestral practices, and combating the climate crisis. Ecuador’s citizens have done their part. Now, we need Ecuador’s authorities and the rest of the governments and companies of the world to do theirs in the fight against the effects of the climate crisis, by working alongside one another and investing in Ecuador to continue protecting these nature sanctuaries.