Environmentalist Yaku Pérez, the surprise candidate in Ecuador's elections

Indigenous leader and environmental lawyer Yaku Pérez led opposition to Chinese mining company Junefield and now looks set to contest Ecuador’s presidential run-off

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Yaku Pérez

Yaku Pérez's strong showing in Ecuador's elections on Sunday could see him contest the second round against Andrés Arauz (image: Andrés Bermúdez Liévano)

The big surprise in Ecuador's presidential elections held Sunday came from Yaku Pérez Guartambel, a charismatic indigenous leader and candidate of the Pachakutik indigenous party, who until two years ago was not well known nationally but is now close to contesting the second round.

Usually seen with his long hair in a ponytail and a rainbow scarf knotted around his neck, Pérez, an environmental lawyer, gained much of his political capital from his opposition to several gold mining projects in the mountainous Cuenca region, including one owned by Chinese mining company Junefield Ecuagoldmining.

19.8%

Pérez's share of the vote from the first round of Ecuador's elections

After a campaign with a strong environmental message and solid showings in the Andean and Amazonian regions, Perez has 19.84% of the vote, with 99.60% counted. That's scarcely a 23,000-vote lead, or 0.26% of the total, over 65-year-old businessman and banker Guillermo Lasso, who is backed by a right-wing alliance and who was already a two-time presidential candidate. 

The tight vote means that, in either scenario, Pérez will play a leading role, contesting the presidency or acting as kingmaker. If his numbers hold, the run-off will see Pérez face Andrés Arauz, the 36-year-old economist and former knowledge minister who won 32% of the first-round vote.

If he is ultimately overtaken by Lasso, Pérez’s would become a highly-prized endorsement. Ecuador now faces the prospect of a third consecutive electoral confrontation that involves Lasso and the right-wing that he represents: once with former president Rafael Correa, Arauz’s mentor who governed Ecuador for a decade and was sentenced last year to eight years in prison for bribery, and last time out against current president Lenín Moreno, Correa’s former vice president-turned-adversary. 

Yaku Pérez's high profile case

Yaku Pérez, who until last year was the prefect of Azuay province in southern Ecuador, became known for his role as a lawyer for several communities that opposed gold mining projects.

Perhaps the case that elevated his profile most is that of Río Blanco, where four years of legal and even physical confrontations between China’s Junefield Ecuagoldmining and several local communities paralysed a flagship mining project. The last two governments have sought to make the sector one of the cornerstones of economic policy.

As Diálogo Chino and Hong Kong's Initium Media reported two years ago, the high profile case revealed the difficulties of mining in Ecuador. Amid a lack of dialogue between companies and communities, many are concerned about the activity’s environmental footprint and the almost complete absence of the state.

Tension between two indigenous farming communities and the privately owned Chinese conglomerate came to a head in May 2018. At that time, what began as a peaceful protest in Rio Blanco ended with a devastating fire at the mining camp. To this day there is no clarity about what happened in an incident the Chinese company says was provoked by the rural communities and which the latter insists was caused by the mine's private security.

They confuse prior consultation with socialisation, with hearings, with anything else that isn't what it should be

The mine, whose gold and silver deposits could be worth more than US$200 million to Ecuador, is located right on the edge of the Cajas National Park, home to hundreds of high mountain lakes. It is a veritable water factory. A dozen rivers flow from its páramos (moors), bringing water to Cuenca (the country's third largest city), the Ecuadorian coast and the rivers of the Amazon basin. 

Communities fear that the mining company's activities could affect the water sources  within the national park, something prohibited by law. The company insists that its project is 3.5 kilometres outside the park and it has no reason to affect it.

Although almost all media coverage of the case has focused on the tense relationship between the communities and the company, it has begun to move through the courts.

In June 2018, a Cuenca judge ordered the suspension of activities at the mine in response to a suit filed by the communities who argued that their rights to water, work and consultation had been violated. The biggest blow to Junefield and the Ecuadorean government was the ruling that the right of neighbouring indigenous communities to prior consultation on the project had been violated.

The Ecuadorian government appealed that decision, but three magistrates of the Azuay provincial court upheld the ruling, which is still awaiting a final decision by the Constitutional Court. A year ago, Reuters reported that the company initiated legal action against Ecuador, claiming the situation made it impossible to extract gold.

The case became a watershed moment for the inhabitants of Río Blanco, who, encouraged by Pérez, began to self-identify as indigenous Cañari Kichwa, whilst a conflict with Junefield was ongoing. 

The reason for their decision is that indigenous status gives them the right to demand free, prior and informed consultation, a right protected by the Ecuadorean Constitution and by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 169 on Indigenous Peoples, which Ecuador has ratified. They registered with Ecuarunari, the arm of the national indigenous organisation that brings together the indigenous peoples of the Ecuadorean Andes.

This issue of self-identification is a thorny one. Lenín Moreno's government has disputed that they are indigenous, arguing that this information was not available at the start of the project. Ironically, however, it was the Ecuadorean government itself, then led by Correa with Moreno as vice-president, that since the 2010 population census encouraged communities with indigenous roots to declare themselves as such.

Aside from the issue of ethnicity, Río Blanco illustrates an increasingly common pattern in Ecuador and Latin America. Aware that protests and road blockades often end in confrontations with security forces and even criminal proceedings, local communities are now opting for more legal and political challenges. And many are winning. 

Junefield Ecuagoldmining's mine, high in the Cajas massif, has generated an acute conflict between local communities, company and government. Photo: Andrés Bermúdez Liévano.

The indigenous lawyer of Río Blanco

Although he was already well-known in Cuenca after years of litigating water and indigenous rights cases and serving as a councillor, the court victory over Junefield, a case that Pérez himself initiated on behalf of communities, further cemented his status. 

"Of course we are indigenous: our surnames, our colour, our cosmovision is indigenous. But there is a widespread modus operandi: there is no prior consultation here. They confuse prior consultation with socialisation, with hearings, with anything else that isn't what it should be", Pérez told Diálogo Chino two years ago. 

During the legal proceedings he denounced his illegal detention by pro-mining communities, who he says threatened and beat him. As a result of the episode, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), a legal organ of the Organization of Amereican States (OAS) ordered that Ecuador guarantee his safety.

In 2018, Pérez ran for prefect of Azuay province as a candidate for the indigenous Pachakutik party, campaigning as a "defender of water" and playing the saxophone on the streets. In the end, his victory in the March 2019 elections was as surprising as it was resounding: he won with 117,000 votes and more than 10 percentage points ahead of his nearest rival.

In some ways, Pérez’s rise reflects the growing influence of the indigenous cause in Ecuador over the past two decades. As one of the founders and the first president of the provincial Federation of Indigenous and Peasant Organisations of Azuay (FOA), he went on to lead Ecuarunari and become a board member of the Confederation of Indigenous Nations of Ecuador (Conaie). During his time there, he was arrested several times during demonstrations against the government of Rafael Correa, according to local news site GK. 

During the process of self-identification as an indigenous Cañari Kichwa, Pérez also changed his name. As of four years ago, he is no longer called Carlos Ranulfo but Yaku Sacha, which means 'water from the mountain', in recognition of his family's Cañari Kichwa origins.

On taking office as provincial governor of Azuay, Pérez became only the third indigenous prefect of Ecuador. Just a year and a half later, in October 2020, he once again surprised observers by announcing that he was stepping down as prefect and running for president.

This week he could make headlines again as the first indigenous person to contest a run-off election in Ecuador.

To read the full Rio Blanco story, click here.