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415. Cheese, Soccer Balls and Sweaters: Worth Their Salt

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Country: Belgium
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cheesewheels market cheesefactory cattle saltminearea

Only a generation ago a single salt mine offered the vast majority of job opportunities for the people of Salinas de Guaranda, Ecuador. This salt mine was not a cooperative. It did not offer collective governance to the workers. Owned by a single man, the workers received low wages in unsafe conditions with no hope for development or growth.

Salinas nestles in the sloping Andes of central Ecuador. Outside the city and the mine, fields patchwork the mountains into cozy, rumpled, green quilts. The air is cool and moist. Into this idyllic landscape came Father Antonio Polo who provided inspiration for the community to transform.

In 1970 Father Polo left Italy and came to Ecuador. Not long after he helped found a cheese making cooperative in Salinas. Now this cooperative employs 90% of the Salinas workforce and specializes in not only local cheeses but also world-class gruyere and parmesan. (In the last several decades Salinas has benefited several times from the arrival of dedicated clergy and helpful Swedes—the former help start coops and the later provide instruction on gourmet food making.)

In the wake of the cheese coop’s success, the town took to cooperative business. Only 40-some years after the coop sold its first wheels, over eighteen businesses now operate in Salinas. They produce everything from chocolate to soccer balls to sweaters to sausages, and a lot in between. The town boasts a cooperatively organized mill, mechanics, museum, trout farm and hotel.

These coops do not function in isolation. They support each other through times of crisis and strategize ways to integrate products and marketing. The coops also belong to a democratically run umbrella group that provides a platform for the businesses to work together and determine how profits can best support Salinas as a whole.

The town is not ready to rest on its laurels. Youth organizations are opening a cultural center, working to enhance the technology skills of young Salinans and looking for places where these skills can better the community. People are thinking about what other cooperative businesses might thrive and it looks like they will keep doing just that: thriving.

Sal means salt in Spanish and Salinas bears its name because of the salt mines on the outskirts of town—the ones that provided such poor employment for the community. But Salinas need not change its name. Recently the mines re-opened —this time under cooperative governance.

To learn more about Salinas and view a video in Spanish please visit: www.tomabelas.com and www.texsal.org

Author of this story
Kathryn Kruse
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