Awards 2004 Specially Commended: The Community of Salinas , Ecuador

Specially Commended: The Community of Salinas , Ecuador

Receiving the award

Salinas parish covers a rural area of Ecuador stretching from the pastures of the 13,000 foot Andes down to tropical valleys where people grow sugar, bananas and cocoa. It has graveled roads, a school in almost every hamlet, a network of co-operative businesses and a thriving population of about 10,000 who no longer seek work in the cities.

But when an Italian priest, Father Antonio Polo, went there in 1971, at the invitation of the local bishop whom he met in Rome , he found it beautiful to see but sad to live in. Nearly half the children were dying in their first year. Eight people out of ten were illiterate. They lived in huts of earth and straw. There were no permanent roads or running water. Apart from subsistence farming, some people made salt by boiling the water from salt springs. But the salt trade and local cheesemaking were controlled by the landowners, the Cordovez family.

Father Polo brought with him Italian volunteers who encouraged the people of Salinas village to form a savings co-operative. Since mineral rights in Ecuador belong to the government, which favours local organisations, the co-operative won the rights to the salt. But it soon became clear that this was not enough for prosperity, though it still provides two families with a living.

The co-operative went on to cheesemaking, in which almost every family in the village is one way or another involved. This helped people understand the idea of adding value to their produce. The co-operative started several more not-for-profit businesses in meat, sweet-making, wool. People learned simple but effective technologies. Profits were used for new projects. A spinning mill, employing 55 people, provides wool for local women to knit into garments.

The community of Salinas

Father Polo played a key role in bringing people together and in enlisting technical support and money internationally. He has worked tirelessly for 33 years. Alongside the co-operative he set up a foundation called the Salesian Family (after St Francois de Sales who worked among the poor of 17th century France ). This is involved in health, education and the making of chocolate, jam, turron (nougat), essential oils and buttons.

Another organisation, Funorsal, was formed to set up co-operatives in other communities in the Salinas area. As a result, most communities now have their own cheese business. The Salinas Youth Group, set up to find job opportunities for young people, runs a hotel and dries mushrooms. The Texal foundation coordinates women's organisations. Salinas also now has an export centre. All these form the Gruppo Salinas and operate alongside the local elected commune which controls the use of land.

Salinas people acquired old road equipment and have built 80 miles of graveled roads, making access and the movement of goods much easier. They have built 28 schools, for which the government provides teachers. They have also built four health centres.

The Salinas community now offers work not just to farmers but to managers and professional people. Youngsters have the prospect of returning from university to work in their home community.

Ecuador is not a prosperous country. Its people cannot easily afford what Salinas has to offer. So making sales is a constant challenge. But Salinas sells woollens, cocoa, ceramics, baskets, sugar, dried mushrooms and other goods abroad. Fair trade in Italy has offered a good opening.

The judges say

We felt this is certainly an impressive long-term community initiative. The outputs are undeniably impressive and include infrastructure achievements. The organisation has managed to increase production, employment and quality and have involved the local community in education programmes. The concepts and the management practices are replicable and Salinas are certainly achieving commercial best practice.

"This is simply impressive and there is no doubting the merits of the work being done by the Salinas Community"

The Community of Salinas, Ecuador,
Via El Calvario y Samilagua, Salinas, Guaranda-Bolivar, Ecuador
tel +593-03-390020; fax +593-03-390045