Yaku Pérez: ‘We must defend Yasuní’

Indigenous activist is again running for president in Ecuador, seeking a change from the previous governments of Correa and Lasso that allowed oil exploration in the Amazon
<p>Yaku Pérez speaks at the Congress of Ecuador in September 2022. The current presidential candidate came third in the 2021 elections. (Image: <a href="">Fernando Sandoval</a> / <a href="">Congress of Ecuador</a>, <a href="">CC BY-SA</a>)</p>

Yaku Pérez speaks at the Congress of Ecuador in September 2022. The current presidential candidate came third in the 2021 elections. (Image: Fernando Sandoval / Congress of Ecuador, CC BY-SA)

Yaku Pérez entered the radar of Ecuadorian politics in 2009, when he was arrested for leading large protests against the unregulated exploitation of water by mining in the city of Cuenca, Azuay province. At the time, the lawyer and Indigenous activist of the Cañari people was known as Carlos, but later changed his name to Yaku, which means “water” in the Indigenous Quechua language.

Since then, he has been arrested on other occasions for participating in protests and saw his partner, Brazilian political scientist Manuela Picq, forced to leave Ecuador in 2015 — according to him, in retaliation for covering demonstrations against the government of Rafael Correa (2007–2017).

Pérez was elected governor of Azuay in 2019 and ran for president in 2021 for the Pachakutik party — one of the oldest and most powerful Indigenous movements in the Andean region. In those elections, he came third, losing out on a place in the second and final round to current president Guillermo Lasso by just 32,000 votes, or 0.3% of the electorate.

Pérez gives a speech surrounding by environmental activists
At the microphone, Pérez gives a speech during the 2021 presidential campaign, where he missed out on a runoff spot by a narrow margin (Image: Alamy)

The environmentalist has not given up on his dream of becoming the first Indigenous president in Ecuador’s history. He is currently second in the polls for the elections that are scheduled for August.

The challenges for whoever takes over will be enormous. The next president will have less than two years to govern, as the mandate only runs until May 2025. This is because in May Lasso dissolved Congress to avoid impeachment proceedings for alleged corruption, handing over the post on the grounds of “serious political crisis.”

It is the Indigenous Pachakutik people who stand to lose the most as a result of Lasso’s act of political hari-kari: they elected 27 members of parliament in the wake of major mobilisations against the previous government, but may find it difficult to repeat this historic feat.

During the late May interview transcribed below, Pérez criticised the party’s lack of achievement in Congress and said he was running for his new political movement Somos Agua [We Are Water], and the Claro que se puede [Of course you can] coalition. Two weeks later, however, the Pachakutik announced it would support Pérez. 

As well as choosing the next president in the elections, Ecuadorians will also vote for or against oil exploration in Yasuní National Park. A symbol of the country, the Amazonian national park is home to some of the world’s most important biodiversity. While the consultation has been postponed for a decade, state-owned Petroecuador is already operating in the area with China’s Chuanqing Drilling Engineering Company Limited.

We talked with Yaku Pérez about his new candidacy, the challenges in Ecuadorian environmental policy and his disagreements with former President Correa, President Lasso and the Indigenous movement itself.

Although you did not make it to the second round of the 2021 elections, Indigenous candidates had a considerable vote then. What have they achieved so far? Could the recent dissolution of the Congress limit these achievements?

What have the 27 elected Indigenous members of Congress achieved, compared with before, when there were four or five? Apparently nothing. That is something they would have to answer. If you ask public opinion, the national government has an 8% approval rating and Congress, 4%. With that, we can conclude that the legislative work has fallen short.

Pachakutik’s bench outside the Ecuadorian Congress
Pachakutik’s bench in November 2021, outside the Ecuadorian Congress. The Indigenous party won the largest legislative vote in its history in that year’s elections. (Image: Christian Medina / Congress of Ecuador, CC BY-SA)

In those elections, you represented Pachakutik. What were the disagreements with the party that made you decide to run independently? And how does your new project differ from Pachakutik?

I have been active in Pachakutik my whole life. I don’t deny my Indigenous ancestry. I deeply respect the movement, but what the representatives did as soon as they arrived in Congress was to split: some towards the neoliberal right wing of Guillermo Lasso’s government and others towards the authoritarian populism of Rafael Correa.

We build and present to the country a third way sustained by the philosophy of life — that is, care for nature, biodiversity, water, the planet, respect for human rights and the rights of nature. Instead of authoritarianism – democracy. Instead of extractivism – productivity. Instead of corruption – honesty, ethics.

Editor’s Note: On Monday 12 June, Pachakutik announced it will support Yaku Pérez in the presidential election. Given his statements against the party, we asked his campaign office for a comment. A spokesperson answered: “Yaku has never had any disagreements with the Pachakutik base, from which he has always received support and is well-known. However, he has had strong disagreement with Congress people who followed the authoritarianism of former president Correa and the neoliberal right of president Lasso, as Yaku represents a third way.”

Do you think the rivalry with former President Correa’s group could hurt your performance in these August elections?

Former President Correa started well in 2007, but I think that power is toxic and when you are not sufficiently prepared, you become confused and lost. The Chinese philosopher Confucius said: “If you want to know a man, give him power” [the phrase may actually be US politician Robert G. Ingersoll’s]. And there you have it: he has criminalised social demonstrations.

There were 850 people prosecuted in Ecuador [for peaceful protests], I was unjustly arrested four times for defending water, and I was accused of being a terrorist, a saboteur. My companion Manuela was forced to leave the country for exercising her profession as a journalist. Leftist social organisations like the FUT [Workers’ Unitarian Front] disintegrated. This divided the workers. The teachers’ union disappeared. Correa tried to fracture the Indigenous organisation several times — and to some extent succeeded.

They have closed down media outlets, granted thousands of hectares of land to transnational mining and oil companies, and there has been a constant violation of human rights. It is against this that the majority of Ecuadorians stood up — although there is a group that still supports him, of course. He wanted indefinite re-election to follow in the footsteps of [Hugo] Chávez, [Nicolás] Maduro, Daniel Ortega. That is the reason for the resistance against him.

You mention the mistakes of past governments. What do you propose that is different, especially on environmental issues? What is your take on the free trade agreement signed with China, the debt-for-nature swap in Galápagos and the popular consultation on oil exploration in Yasuní?

All international treaties are welcome, if we do not give up national sovereignty, food sovereignty.

Galápagos should not just have that small strip of reserve, it should be expanded further. All the studies showed that the marine space should be multiplied tenfold.

The public consultation on Yasuní is not the work of Lasso or Correa. They initiated and deepened oil exploration. The consultation on Yasuní is due to the young dreamers who did not give up their struggle. Why should we defend Yasuní? Because there is a wealth of biodiversity there, some of the most important on the planet. There are uncontacted Indigenous brothers there: the Tagaeri and the Taromenane. It is part of the Amazon, which in turn provides oxygen and fresh water for 20% of the planet. Caring for the Yasuní is caring for the Amazon, caring for the planet.

What would we do differently? We would bet on caring for the planet so that it does not succumb in the face of climate collapse. We also want to correct the gigantic social asymmetries, fight crime — and part of crime is also tax evasion, which represents US$7 billion a year, more than 7% of Ecuador’s GDP.

Who has been barring this popular consultation on Yasuní for the past decade?

Correa. He was pressured by environmentalists not to touch the oil of Yasuní. But with the pressure of the multinationals, he gave in and betrayed the environmentalism he defended. He is responsible for oil exploration in Yasuní. He gave the concession to the Chinese [the multinational Chuanqing Drilling Engineering Company Limited]. Now Lasso is continuing it.

Correa also opened the border to Swedish, Canadian, Australian and, above all, Chinese transnational mining companies.

An oil extraction in Yasuní National Park, in the Ecuadorian Amazon
Oil extraction in Yasuní National Park, in the Ecuadorian Amazon. A public consultation on oil activity in the region will be voted on together with the presidential elections this year. (Image: Alamy)

If elected president, what will be your plan to lead Ecuador’s energy transition away from fossil fuels?

We have a post-extractivist vision. Neither mines nor oil can be planted. And because of extractivism, we are still an appendix of other countries — like the Nordic countries, the South Koreans, who in 1960 had a poorer economy than Honduras, Bolivia, Ecuador and Argentina. We are falling behind. That’s why we have to bet on agroecology, responsible and monitored agro-industry, tourism and manufacturing. We must also invest in education: that is the key to getting out of the economic and social backwardness in which we live.

Under your government, what would be the future of controversial works such as the Coca Codo Sinclair and Toachi Pilatón hydroelectric plants?

We will make a diagnosis to see if they can be remedied in economic terms. We will conduct an audit to see who is responsible for these millionaire contracts and we will let the judicial system take care of that. I will not pursue anyone, but acts contrary to the Constitution cannot go unpunished.

Ecuador has already signed and ratified the Escazú Agreement, but political will is needed for it to be implemented. What practical measures does it offer to protect environmental activists in the country?

The defenders of water and nature will be part of our government. They need to be publicly recognised because they have been criminalised, marginalised, stigmatised. We environmentalists have been called childish, cavemen, retrograde, ignorant, saboteurs, terrorists. We were called CIA agents, just for defending water and nature.

We do not own the Earth. We belong to it.

But if we have a third ecological way, post-extractivist, that follows the current of our grandfathers and grandmothers, we make nature sacred. We do not own the Earth. We belong to it. A wise old man used to say that the stone is not mute, it only keeps silence. The stone has life, the water has life, the planet is a living being… it is as Stephen Hawking said: if we have not colonised another planet, this is the only home where we and our children and our children’s children can live. So, the Earth is sacred, blessed, and we must care for it, protect it and raise it as it has raised us.