Court cases and referendum votes against extractivism: under-represented groups have had recent wins in the battle against climate change

This insight examines youth activists’ win in the Held v. State of Montana case and the Ecuadorian referendum vote that has stopped oil drilling in the Yasuní region of the Amazon rainforest.
September 8, 2023

The landmark Held v. State of Montana case

Climate litigation cases are rapidly increasing. This year, the United States saw its first-ever constitutional climate trial. Sixteen youths, aged five to twenty-two, sued the Montana state government for failing to protect their right to a clean and healthy environment due to fossil fuel extraction and burning.[i] It is stated within Montana’s constitution that, “All persons are born free and have certain inalienable rights. They include the right to a clean and healthful environment”.[ii]

In August, Judge Kathy Seeley ruled wholly in favour of the young plaintiffs and ruled against a state law that prohibited the consideration of climate impacts when approving energy projects. The case reinforces how passionate young people are about acting on climate change. In 2021, UNDP released the results of the Peoples’ Climate Vote, a survey with 1.2 million respondents, the largest-ever survey on public opinion on climate change. Nearly 70% of respondents under the age of 18 said that climate change is a global emergency, compared to 65% of those aged 18-35, 66% aged 36-59 and 58% for those aged over 60.[iii] However, we have previously noted that despite climate change being an extremely important issue for young people, there is a skills gap that prevents them from working to solve it. Read ZCA’s other insights here to find out more about the green skills gap:

·         Where is the new built environment workforce? Examining the Skills for a Sustainable Skyline Taskforce’s new report on the built environment

·         Energy industry leaders warn that supply chain pressures and green skills shortages could hamper the renewable energy transition

·         Green skills gap: Sustainability Officers warn that a lack of climate talent risks hampering net zero aspirations

·         Green skills are missing as the world looks to transition towards a net zero economy

·         Marketing experts feel unprepared to meet the need to advertise green credentials

Ecuadorians vote to stop drilling for oil in Yasuní National Park

Source: Gemma Drake


The Yasuní region of Ecuador is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world.[iv] The Yasuní National Park has 173 different types of mammals, over 4,000 plant species, and at least two uncontacted indigenous tribes.[v] However, beneath the park is an oil reserve containing an estimated 1.67 billion barrels of oil at a value of over $133 billion.[vi] In 2007, Ecuador’s president at the time, Rafael Correa, asked wealthy countries to compensate Ecuador $7.2 billion over ten years for not drilling in the Yasuní. However, Ecuador only received $13 million in 2013. So, in 2016, oil drilling in the region began to help relieve some of Ecuador’s debt.[vii] The United States imports 66% of the oil from Yasuní.[viii]

On the 20th of August, a referendum was held asking Ecuadorians whether they wanted to stop oil drilling in the Yasuní. The Waorani are a tribe indigenous to the Ecuadorian Amazon. Waorani activists were extremely important in convincing the rest of the country to vote YES in the referendum. 59% of voters chose to stop the oil drilling project.[ix] This is the first instance where Ecuador has voted by democratic ballot on resource extraction in the Amazon.[x]

Source: Hivos

Indigenous peoples only make up 5% of the world’s population, but they currently protect 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity.[xi]


Source: Statista

Indigenous rights and the role of Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) in protecting ecosystems and carbon sinks have emerged on the international climate agenda in recent years. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) ‘Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability’ report has been noted as giving increased attention to indigenous knowledge. 

“This report recognises the value of diverse forms of knowledge such as scientific, as well as Indigenous knowledge and local knowledge in understanding and evaluating climate adaptation processes and actions to reduce risks from human-induced climate change.”[xii] 

At COP26, $1.7 billion was pledged for Indigenous peoples over five years by various donors.[xiii] Within one year, 19% had been distributed, but only 7% went directly to Indigenous and community organisations.[xiv] At COP27, there were large numbers of Indigenous leaders present, including around 300 in the Indigenous Peoples Caucus.[xv] However, the presence and power of Indigenous people during the negotiations at COP27 has been questioned. Indigenous negotiators felt that some of the issues they raised at the start of the conference were not concluded at its end. Another issue was that the agreements about carbon offset market rules contained limited recognition of the rights of Indigenous peoples and the need to consult indigenous communities on the use of land.[xvi]

Petroecuador, the oil company that has been drilling in the Yasuní, now has a year to stop production. The ending of oil drilling in the Yasuní will reduce Ecuador’s crude oil output by around 12%.[xvii] Petroecuador has previously said that Ecuador could lose $13.8 billion in income over the next twenty years due to a YES vote. Ecuador’s central bank has predicted that between 2023 and 2026, Ecuador faces a 1.9% reduction in projected economic growth due to the ban.[xviii] 

The referendum also included a vote on whether to ban mining in the Choco Andino forest near Quito. 68% of voters supported this ban.[xix]


[i] BBC- Judge sides with 16 activists in Montana climate case

[ii] Youth v. Gov- Historic Climate Trial: Held v. State of Montana

[iii] UNDP- The Peoples’ Climate Vote

[iv] UNESCO- Yasuní Biosphere Reserve, Ecuador

[v] Time- Ecuadorians Vote to Stop Oil Drilling in the Amazon Rainforest

[vi] Ibid

[vii] Ibid

[viii] NBC News- Crude reality: One U.S. state consumes half the oil from the Amazon rainforest

[ix] Time- Ecuadorians Vote to Stop Oil Drilling in the Amazon Rainforest

[x] Aljazeera- Will Ecuador voters set a precedent on oil drilling in the Amazon?

[xi] Statista- Indigenous Communities Protect 80% Of All Biodiversity

[xii] IPCC- Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability

[xiii] UK Government Cabinet Office- COP26 Presidency Outcomes

[xiv] Mongabay- Words that didn’t make the cut: What happened to Indigenous rights at COP27 & Tenure Facility- Indigenous People at COP 27: The struggle to be heard

[xv] Tenure Facility- Indigenous People at COP 27: The struggle to be heard

[xvi] Mongabay- Words that didn’t make the cut: What happened to Indigenous rights at COP27

[xvii] Reuters- Ecuador votes to ban oil drilling in part of Amazon, mining outside Quito

[xviii] Ibid

[xix] Ibid

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Gemma Drake
Research Analyst

Gemma recently graduated with a degree in International Development. She is currently studying for an MSc in Sustainable Urbanism, which examines urban planning and urban design through a sustainability lens. “I’m passionate about addressing sustainability challenges in a holistic and pragmatic way. Zero Carbon Academy's diverse range of services targets many of the areas that need support if we are to transition to a liveable future. I’m excited to see the impact that the Academy makes.”

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