Yaku Pérez: The Indigenous Water Defender Who Might be Ecuador’s Next PresidentBeth Pitts

Photograph of the author Beth Pitts on a rainy day.
Beth Pitts
Yaku Pérez on the campaign trail riding his famous bamboo bicycle.
Yaku Pérez on the campaign trail riding his bamboo bicycle. Photo: Yaku Pérez archives.

Against all odds, an indigenous water defender is among the top three candidates in Ecuador’s presidential election, to be held on 7th February. If he wins, Yaku Pérez, who has been imprisoned several times for his struggle to protect water sources from transnational metal mining, plans to stop the expansion of extractive industries in Ecuador. Refusing corporate donations and running a campaign staffed entirely by volunteers, Pérez risks assassination daily as he tours the country in the run-up to the election, arriving in town after town on his bamboo bicycle.

It is nothing short of astonishing that a feminist, pro-choice, pantheist indigenous leader and environmental activist has such a shot at leading a country where all recent presidents, whether right or left, have been anti-abortion, extractivist and openly Catholic.

Recent images demonstrate the unconventionality of Pérez’ presidential bid. Photos of him in the humble home of a campesino, where he had stayed overnight on the campaign trail, wearing a pair of shorts and clutching a stuffed bear, provoked much ridicule (and inspired a torrent of memes). But, like former Uruguayan President José “Pepe” Mujica, the eschewal of the material trappings of political office have endeared Pérez to the hearts of many.

Yaku Pérez stays at supporters’ homes on the campaign trail.
Yaku Pérez stays at supporters’ homes on the campaign trail. Photo: Yaku Pérez archives.

I have known Yaku Pérez since 2014, when he led the March for Water, a two-week indigenous mobilisation to protest the new Water Law that put water rights in the hands of mining companies rather than communities. Having joined the protesters as they slept on community centre floors, shared simple food donated by supporters, and were obstructed by police every step of the way, I can attest that Pérez is the rare politician who (literally) walks the talk.

Yaku Pérez reminds police of the constitutional right to protest on the 2014 Water March.
Yaku Pérez reminds police of the constitutional right to protest on the 2014 Water March. Photo: Beth Pitts.

Pérez is the presidential candidate for Pachakutik, the political arm of Ecuador’s indigenous movement, formed after an uprising in the mid-1990s. His government plan is based on an ancient Andean indigenous symbol, the cosmic chakana, with the four elements samay (air), allpa (Mother Earth), nina (fire) and yaku (water) representing ecology, economics, education and ethics. His key election promise is to end to the expansion of oil exploitation and metal mining. Considering that 15% of the national territory of Ecuador, the most biodiverse country in the world per unit area, has been concessioned to transnational mining interests, and that oil exploitation is ravaging its Amazon rainforest, this is a huge deal. Going even further, Pérez plans to modify or abolish any productive activity that damages ecosystems. Other pillars of his plan include a transition to renewable energy, climate justice, a circular economy, universal basic income, a national agroecology plan, and an audit of ecological and colonial debt.

Speaking exclusively to Writers Rebel from the campaign trail, Pérez commented:

“The civilisational crisis, the ecological emergency, global heating, are poisoning our rivers, contaminating our environment and causing a planetary crisis over the scarcity of food and water. If we don’t try to avoid it today, tomorrow will be too late. And who will suffer the worst consequences? The young people, and the children of our children of our children. As our ancestors passed the planet on to us in a good state, we have the imperative obligation to pass it on to our children, so that they can enjoy, not only the countryside, but healthy food, fresh water, clean air. And this means that we have to join together, to resist in an irreverent way, we cannot remain indifferent with cold hearts. We have to undertake an active struggle. Everything depends on what we do today. Either we will cause a global tragedy or we will achieve a triumph of solidarity, respect for nature and a healthy life.”

So how on earth did a criminalised indigenous water defender become a serious contender for presidential office? The story is a fascinating one.

Yaku Sacha Pérez Guartambel is the son of campesino parents from Ecuador’s Andean region. He was originally christened Carlos, but later changed his name to Yaku Sacha, which means “mountain water” in his native language of Kichwa. His family are Kichwa Kañaris, an indigenous group whose ancestors are renowned for their brave and determined resistance of the Inca invasion. At the age of five, Pérez was tasked with fetching water from the nearby spring; a daily ritual that taught him to value every drop of the precious liquid. The crystalline water that he carried in earthenware pots flowed down from Laguna Kimsacocha, a lake sacred to the Kañaris, located high up in the páramo, a fragile moorland ecosystem where Andean bears, wolves and tapir roam.

Yaku Pérez with his parents.
Yaku Pérez with his parents. Photo: Yaku Pérez archives.

In his youth, Pérez took up the saxophone and originally planned to be a musician, but the direction of his life changed when the water source that his family depend on, along with all the campesinos in the area, was threatened by a mega-mining project. Upon discovering that an international mining company planned to start exploration of Kimsacocha, Pérez decided to become a lawyer to defend the sacred lake. He won a scholarship for university, eventually attaining a doctorate and becoming a specialist in Criminal Law, Indigenous Justice and Environmental Law; quite an achievement considering that his parents received three years of schooling between them. His two-decade struggle to protect Kimsacocha has thus far been successful, thanks to tireless community organising and legal battles, though the mining threat remains ever-present, and the personal price has been great.

Pérez has been imprisoned six times for his defence of water and hospitalized twice following attacks by State agents. In 2018, he was kidnapped and brutalised by mine workers who, following orders from above, threatened to burn him alive. The Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, declaring that Pérez was at “grave risk” due to his work as a defender of the rights of indigenous people and the environment, quickly granted him Precautionary Measures.

Pérez served two mandates (2013-2019) as President of the Confederation of Kichwa People of Ecuador (ECUARUNARI), the oldest and largest indigenous organization of its kind in Ecuador, with considerable power to mobilize uprisings. Remarkably, in 2019, on a groundswell of grassroots support, he was elected Prefect of the province of Azuay, a position akin to governor. During his time in office, he pushed for a referendum on whether mining should be allowed in the province and implemented a flagship project to introduce bamboo bicycles. The outcome of the mining referendum, due to take place on the same day as the presidential election, could decide the fate of his beloved Laguna Kimsacocha.

A widowed father of two daughters, Pérez remarried in 2013, to the Franco-Brazilian academic and activist Manuela Picq. At the time of their traditional Kañari wedding ceremony, Picq had been living in Ecuador for six years and was working as a Professor of International Relations at a prestigious Quito university.

Yaku Pérez sustained injuries during his violent arrest.
Pérez sustained injuries during his violent arrest. Photo: El Comercio.

The couple had to endure several years apart when Picq was forced into exile in 2015 by the government of President Rafael Correa. That August, the country was in uproar, with thousands taking to the streets to protest a proposed set of constitutional amendments, one of which would have permitted Correa’s indefinite re-election. As President of ECUARUNARI, Pérez had played a key role in organising the mass mobilisations. As the couple peacefully joined protesters in Quito, Pérez playing his saxophone and Picq filming events on her phone, they were set upon by police officers. A video recorded by a bystander shows the moment they were knocked to the ground, beaten with batons and dragged apart.

Following the violent arrest, Picq was taken to an immigration jail and her visa arbitrarily revoked. With no legal way to remain in the country, she was forced to flee, leaving her husband, her home and her job behind. She lived in exile until 2018, when Correa’s successor, Lenín Moreno, allowed her to return to Ecuador. Today, she is reunited with Pérez and managing his presidential campaign.

Pérez and Picq on the campaign trail.
Pérez and Picq on the campaign trail. Photo: Yaku Pérez archives.

To add a further dramatic twist to the story, Pérez’ main opponent in the presidential race, Andrés Arauz, is the nominated candidate of Rafael Correa, the president who repeatedly jailed Pérez and forced Picq into exile. In fact, Correa had wanted to run as Arauz’s vice president, but his hopes were dashed when a court upheld a prior conviction on corruption charges. Having been sentenced to eight years in prison, Correa is unable to return to Ecuador from Belgium, where he has lived since 2017. In 2018, an Ecuadorian court ordered the former President’s arrest over his alleged involvement in the 2012 kidnapping of an opponent. After Interpol refused a judge’s request to capture him, Correa remains a fugitive from justice. Despite this, he still counts on strong political support in Ecuador and Arauz openly admits that Correa would be his “main adviser,” should he win the election.

Not only will the February 7th election pit the indigenous defender against the former president who jailed him, it will provide a battleground for two opposing ideologies. On one side, an expansion of extractivism and authoritarianism. On the other, a ground breaking move towards a more democratic and ecological future for Ecuador.

Speaking exclusively to Writers Rebel, Manuela Picq explained:

“Yaku’s government plan is unprecedented in all of Latin America because it rejects the extractive model completely. Even the indigenous President of Bolivia, Evo Morales, ran on an election promise to expand lithium mining. With extractivist left governments such as Morales’, the resources might be distributed to the people, but the ecological destruction is the same. With Yaku’s complete rejection of industrial agriculture, mining and oil exploitation, he poses a threat to many powerful forces. These forces have criminalised and threatened him, but he keeps fighting. They have attempted to bribe him, but he refuses to be corrupted. We live in constant fear of assassination attempts. We are also expecting massive election fraud on February 7th. We ask for the eyes of the world to be on the election, to ensure a transparent process.”

As an anarchist at heart (I believe that power should move from the bottom upwards, not from the top down), I am not usually inclined to write profile pieces on politicians. But Yaku Pérez is the rare example of a human with convictions strong enough to refuse six figure bribes and risk assassination to keep fighting to defend nature. And that’s good enough for me to join the voices shouting “Yaku Presidente!”

 

Act: The best way to keep Yaku safe and expose election fraud is to occupy social media with his presence. Help to increase his international visibility by sharing his social media posts and using his hashtags (#YakuPresidente, #ClaroQueSePuede, #YakuEs) on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

For more information on Yaku Pérez, see his website (in Spanish).

 

Beth Pitts has been working with indigenous communities in Ecuador since 2013, especially those defending their territories from extractivism. From these defenders, Beth learned that community-led eco-tourism enables them to protect threatened ecosystems and unique ways of life. This inspired her to write the Moon Guide to Ecuador & The Galapagos Islands (2019), the first international guidebook on Ecuador with a focus on ethical travel.

Beth is part of the Writers Rebel team and is excited by the alchemic possibilities of uniting the two forces that give her the most hope for the future: indigenous nature defenders and Extinction Rebellion.