Ecuador: An Agrarian Revolution in the Midst of COVID

With the COVID-19 crisis, like many other failed states, the Ecuadorian national state panicked and had late reactions that translated into omissions and negligence towards its civilian population. For example, for the past two months the state has failed to pay salaries to state employees, but it has continued to pay the country’s foreign debt, nor has it suspended mining and oil activities, placing communities in those regions at risk. A recent oil spill near the Amazon, in the middle of the pandemic, polluted valuable water resources in Ecuador and Peru.

The absence of the state has led some local governments to take exemplary initiatives that are helping to alleviate the crisis and even create alternatives to the colonial vision of a capitalist development dependency model.

In Azuay, a province in southern Ecuador, the indigenous Governor Yaku Pérez Guartambel―a staunch defender of water, land and indigenous rights―has taken advantage of the COVID crisis to restructure the priorities of his government, attend to the basic needs of the population, and generate a solidarity economy focused on local agroecology. It is a truly revolutionary action: generating immediate changes based on the indigenous philosophy of “buen vivir” (harmonious living).

Who Is Yaku Pérez Guartambel

Foto: Prefectura de Azuay

Governor Yaku Pérez, was president of the Confederation of the Kichwas Peoples of Ecuador ECUARUNARI, and president of the Federation of Indigenous and Peasant Organizations of Azuay. As a advocate of nature-based policies, and in particular, defending access to water against mining activities, he was arrested no less than six times during the government of Rafael Correa. Thanks to his leadership, and more than a decade of struggle, voters rejected transnational mining in Quimsacocha with 86% of the vote through a ballot measure.

That success led Yaku Pérez to win the Azuay governorship in May 2019, under the banner of the Pachakutik indigenous party. His promises as a candidate included expanding a mining ban across the province, through the right of prior consultation, and taking initiatives that place food sovereignty and the protection of the environment above extractive profit and economic dependence on transnational corporations.

The mission of its governorship describes these actions as a Radical Democracy, “understood as the right to opinion, the ability to decide and the incidence of the community in the management of the territory’s government, with equity and buen vivir.”

Food Sovereignty in Action

With the COVID pandemic, Governor Yaku Pérez has concentrated efforts on building a new form of government focused on collaboration with farmers, small entrepreneurs, and local human talent. He also reprioritized policies around the crisis to focus on saving lives and preventing the spread of the disease, above public works.

Building upon people’s advocacy, the Azuay governorship involved the population from the beginning to create free “solidarity baskets” and “agro-ecological baskets” at affordable prices, made up of grains, vegetables and local produce, which are delivered house by house. So far, more than 50,000 baskets have been delivered, while respecting social distancing.

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With the slogan, “If the field does not produce, the city does not eat,” the government has focused on supporting agricultural producers and even the promotion of technologies to produce and deliver plant seedlings to farmers, thereby promoting higher quality and faster food production. The food baskets have also included local baker’s unions to support bread production.

Entrega de retoños a agricultores

Foto: Prefectura de Azuay

Entrega de retoños a agricultores

Entrega de retoños a agricultores. Foto: Prefectura de Azuay

The Azuay government launched the creation of diverse relationships between its province and neighboring local governments, creating in fact new forms of alternative economies, some through the direct exchange of work for resources and food, some at low prices, taking into consideration local financial strains due to the health crisis.

Other provincial governments, such as Oro and Pasto, were invited to begin practicing again the ancient indigenous practice of bartering, or if there is a need to charge, to do so at fair prices. Thus, production from cold climates such as potatoes, grains, vegetables and greens, eucalyptus, are delivered, and products from warm climates such as bananas, lemon, orange and other crops are received, thereby also eliminating intermediaries and protecting small producers.

This way, the solidarity economy has been reactivated, in the sense of community-based fair trade.

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“We are bringing back the use of bartering to help the economy of our regions at this time of crisis,” said Governor Yaku Pérez. Faced with accusations of doing politics, he affirmed, “yes, we practice the politics of solidarity, of hope, the politics of life, of solidarity between people…”

Faced with the terrible humanitarian crisis in Guayaquil, where the population and the government have been overwhelmed with the number COVID victims, the Azuay governor called people to join him in a “minga” (voluntary community collective work) and collected more than 45 tons of food that were sent to the city of Guayaquil, to be distributed by social organizations.

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Public education has been a constant to keep people informed of these efforts, including the importance of protecting water above transnational interests in extractive resources. For Governor Yaku Pérez, the fight in defense of water is more important today than ever, not only because “mining is incompatible with the preservation of water” but also because “WHO has said that the coronavirus is a consequence of contamination and deforestation, as well as other anthropic activities in ecosystems.”

In the absence of the central government, the community in Azuay led by Governor Yaku Pérez is changing power relations, promoting sustainability, food sovereignty, and a solidarity economy.

These are structural changes that are likely to continue long after the pandemic ends.