Originally Written by Isabela Valencia, March 2023, on her blog
With a backdrop of fortress-like natural rock formations, Salinas is perched high in the hills above the provincial capital of Guaranda. Salinas derived its name from the salt mines that used to provide an important source of income for the village for over 500 years. The salt mines are still in operation but their relevance has waned.
Today, it is one of Ecuador’s most touristy cities. How did Salinas de Guaranda transform from a sleepy salt mine town to a poster child of equitable rural development and community-based tourism?
Fifty years ago, with the help of a visiting Italian Salesian priest, the people of Salinas opened a cooperative cheese factory to provide a sustainable source of income to local dairy farmers. After the cheese factory came other types of cooperatives. Today, there are cooperatives selling chocolate, yarn, woolen clothing, essential oils and many other products, and they sell their products globally, from Italy and Japan to the United States and Switzerland. Their main brand, Salinerito, now has several stores throughout the country and also exports internationally. The profits are reinvested back into the cooperatives and community development initiatives. The success of these initiatives has helped Salinas develop into a model of rural development.
On my tour of Salinas’ history of local development. Fabiàn, my tour guide, took me around to visit various factories, from an essential oils production facility to a liquor store.
It was impressive to see the impact of this corporation on the community, which employs 95% of the population. Admittedly, it was also slightly disconcerting to see what a monolithic entity the organization had become.
The economic impact of this system cannot be understated. The Salinas area is a region centering on the village of the same name, and in addition, it also encompasses thirty communities comprising a total of around six thousand people. The area’s economy consists of a network of cooperative enterprises falling under the “Salinerito” brand name, which employs the majority of the town’s population.
Gruppo Salinas has advanced the human development of Salinas residents. Today 95% of the people who live in Salinas have electricity, 92% have access to health, 100% have piped water, and only 8% of young people go to the big cities of the country, mainly to study. Community development in Salinas de Guaranda has allowed the population to advance their standard of living.
Overall, a tourism-based approach like this can have a positive overall impact on a community, but there are several considerations that need to be made.
Many of these community benefits tend to stay concentrated in the community and don’t necessarily spread to other surrounding communities, which, for their part, are mindful to not interfere with Salinas’ production. Neighboring communities, for example, will create goat cheese so as to not interfere with the cow-based cheese that Salinas is renowned for.
It was also unclear to me what the policies and management approaches are to prevent resource overuse and exploitation, particularly as it relates to the agroindustry. For example, expanded cheese production could lead to greater demand for cows and may be a driver of land grabbing and deforestation as farmers need more pasture land.
The difficulty of regulating Gruppo Salinas as a legal entity complicates matters. The Salineritos brand name encompasses a corporation, a foundation, and several public organizations. This can make it difficult for regulators to determine which rules it falls under.
Overall, a tourism-based approach like this can have a positive overall impact on a community, but there are several considerations that need to be made. The Salinas de Guaranda community is a fascinating case study because its tourism ventures have been clearly beneficial promoting economic growth. Still, I’m curious as to how it affects other aspects, such as cultural preservation and environmental conservation. As with most things, there are several considerations that need to be made to ensure the impacts do more good than harm.
- Isabela Valencia, March 2023
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