Shaping a Just World

Killing a river is killing the culture of people

Ecuador’s indigenous leaders unite at COP28 to push for Just Transition amid Amazon threats


In a historic move, the majority of Ecuadorians voted in an August 2023 referendum to leave millions of barrels of oil underground in the biodiverse Yasuní National Park. This landmark decision marks a major step towards global climate goals and showcases Ecuador’s commitment to sustainable energy.

With the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) aiming to triple global clean energy capacity by 2030, Latin America has been identified as pivotal in driving this transition, with Ecuador emerging as a crucial player.

Situated at the equator, Ecuador receives direct sunlight, boasts abundant rivers and enjoys favourable winds thanks to its location in the Andes. These factors render it an optimal region for harnessing renewable energies. In fact, the nation already generates 80 per cent of its electricity from hydroelectric plants, and Ecuadorian president Daniel Noboa plans to boost this with eight additional projects.

However, this geographic advantage also comes with specific risks, particularly in one of the country’s most vulnerable areas: the Amazon. This has been evident from existing projects which have overlooked the consequences of developing renewables for communities and delicate ecosystems, posing a significant challenge to addressing climate change.

This is why Amazonian representatives set to attend COP28 in the United Arab Emirates are actively working to thwart the promotion of what they call »new green extractivism«. Their mission is to advocate for a genuinely just transition that actively involves indigenous peoples in decision-making processes.


Fear of hydroelectric dams

Joel Alexis Greffa, a member of the Kichwa Santa Clara indigenous community, is preparing to travel from the Ecuadorian Amazon to Dubai to ensure the legitimacy of the »new alternatives or green energies proposed by COP28«. His first-hand experience with renewable energies, just transition and climate change conferences dates back to 2018 when a hydroelectric project attempted to build a dam in his territory.

Reflecting on that time, 27-year-old Greffa recalls the promises of generating clean electricity to move away from oil. Elaborating on the potential impacts, he emphasised, »Killing a river not only implies physically affecting its structure, but the structure of those who directly and indirectly depend on it. Killing a river is killing the culture of people.« After a year of protests and legal actions, the community successfully halted the project. Now, the community’s young people have formed a group dedicated to protecting the river.

For Greffa, achieving climate goals without compromising sensitive ecosystems is paramount. Witnessing incidents in other parts of the Amazon, such as the disappearance of a waterfall linked to the Coca Codo Sinclair hydroelectric plant and deforestation for balsa wood, strengthens his resolve to identify sustainable alternatives.

Expressing the importance of sharing these experiences at COP, Greffa said, »This is why it is important that we participate in the COP, sharing these experiences, so that we can make joint decisions.«


 Advancing threats in the Amazon

Adding her voice to the Amazon cause at COP28 is 28-year-old María José Andrade Cerda, a Kichwa woman and member of the Yuturi Warmi group, the first indigenous women’s guard in the region. Andrade described hydroelectric projects as »green extraction«, lamenting that, »They continue to take our resources and continue to harm us as indigenous peoples.«

Since 2020, Andrade’s group, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon, has been actively combatting the encroachment of mining operations in Napo, one of the Amazonian provinces severely impacted by deforestation linked to mineral extraction. In just five years, the area allocated for mining has surged by 300 per cent. »The lack of social justice, which should provide people with basic rights and thus prohibit mining, is what makes this activity possible, despite its illegality,« Andrade said emphasising the critical need for equitable measures.

Contrary to these efforts, the government advocates mining as a pivotal element of the energy transition away from oil dependence. In July 2023, an agreement was signed to double daily copper production, leading to a 21 per cent increase in Ecuador’s mining exports from January to May this year, compared to the same period in 2022.

Both indigenous leaders express hope that progress will be made in safeguarding the Amazon. Their aim is for future agreements to serve as alternatives to the conventional extractivist model without perpetuating new violations of the rights of those who have historically borne the brunt of the fossil economy’s impacts.



About the author

Isabel Alarcón has specialised in environmental issues in her journalistic work. She started her career at the newspaper El Comercio in 2014. Isabel was one of the three finalists in the Best Writing category of the Jorge Mantilla Ortega 2022 National Journalism Award and covered the 15th UN Biodiversity Conference in Canada.

This year, we are working with Climate Tracker and supporting journalist Isabel Alarcón to take part in their programme. She is receiving training from Climate Tracker, reporting on COP28 for us and also attending events organised by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.


The opinions and statements of the guest authors expressed in this article do not reflect the position of  the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.


Sarah Zitterbarth
Sarah Zitterbarth
+49 30 26935-7470


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