Lola Samaniego is creating "urban villages" that provide humane and dignified housing and economic opportunities for the poor, while promoting community values and environmental appreciation and protection.
The New Idea
Lola organizes poor communities, working closely with women, who have sought her help in overcoming the difficult situations they face as a result of their poverty. With these communities she builds dynamic associations of solidarity that devote themselves to establishing affordable and dignified housing, economic opportunities through agricultural projects, and recreation zones within ecologically-sound villages. These communities are located near large cities to ensure access to services, markets and schools.The associations involved in Lola's project buy the land with their own financial contributions, ensuring that they are the true owners of the village and not just another group receiving a government handout. Unlike the small concrete block structures typically provided by government housing projects, the homes the associations build will be attractive and comfortable, allowing for access to nature, agricultural resources and dignity. They employ a system of "minga," traditional community cooperation, to prepare the land and to construct the houses. The villages are designed to provide alternatives sources for income, to include centers for on-going education, community meetings and recreation, with concern for maintaining the natural ecology of the land. Through the development of her idea, Lola has created a system to empower women by recreating a village culture for communities who have been living in slum-like settings.
Throughout Ecuador the housing situation for the poorest sectors of society is, in Lola's estimation, practically inhumane. Large families live in dark, one-room cement block homes where the kitchen, the parent's and children's bedrooms all share the same small space, typically 30 square meters. They live in marginal locations, areas with little or no access to nature or basic services, further isolating them and entrapping them in cold cement worlds. The conditions in which these families live prevent many from achieving a sense of solidarity and dignity and hence, inhibit the possibilities for overcoming their poverty. Further magnifying the problem is the increase in the cases of women who have been abandoned by their husbands. The number of men who migrate to various regions in Ecuador or other countries in search of employment grows each year. In the past few years drought and El Niño weather conditions have exacerbated migration to cities as rural workers are no longer able to sustain themselves. Fewer men return to their homes, leaving their wives with little or no income or resources to put their lives back on track. In the province of Loja alone, 30 percent of the families are headed by single or abandoned women and 60 percent of the families live below the poverty line. In rural areas many of these women are forced to leave their land and move to cities in search of economic opportunities to provide for their families. There they frequently end up living in slums. The urban isolation in which they find themselves often places them in a vicious cycle of bitterness, shame, inability to provide for their families, and further desperation.
Lola's first program began when eight women with whom she was working approached her about the economic and housing difficulties they were having. She proposed to them her plan for creating an "urban village" and within three months she established an association of 178 of the poorest families in the community geared towards developing a new type of housing arrangement. This association, guided by Lola and a team of women from the community, has worked together to purchase land and create a new village which fosters cooperation, ecological values and programs for economic progress. The majority of members give minimal monthly contributions to the association to pay the cost of the land. Within five months of the establishment of the first association, the members purchased five acres of land with their membership dues and with the permission of municipal government who authorized the purchase and division of land into separate plots. The current allotment of land is being extended by 6 more acres, providing housing for a total of 240 impoverished families in the Loja region. Lola also worked with the owner of the land to secure a deal with the Bank of Azuay to provide loans to many of the association members to be paid off at a favorable interest rate in small quantities on a monthly basis. Typically the bank requires larger bi-annual payments which are more difficult for poor families to pay back. Lola was also able to gain the support of the land owner, also a member of the Bank's board, to create a beneficial model which she will work to replicate with banks in other regions for her future associations. She has won the support of Ecuador's President Mahaud to begin negotiations with the Ministry of Urban Development and Housing to create another low-interest lending program to purchase the materials needed to construct homes. Plots of land have been assigned to association members by lottery. The community residents are clearing the land and conducting the construction of their homes via the cooperative system of "mingas." In addition to homes, these villages will have a community center which will house the classrooms for the training sessions, a health center, and space for cultural and recreational activities; family gardens for both aesthetic and productive purposes; and community orchards.Lola has worked closely over the past year with the INKA Foundation to carry out the technical aspects of her program, such as the architectural and ecological planning of the villages. (The INKA Foundation is an organization dedicated to integrating ancient agricultural techniques with modern ones to produce ecologically-sound income generating activities for poor communities, and is directed by Ashoka Fellow Jaime Idrovo.) As an example of the community's work to maintain the ecological balance of the land, large hills will be used for terraced agriculture instead of being leveled to make room for more houses. Trees will be used instead of fences or walls to separate homes. Lola has also established agreements with the local University of Technology in Loja to conduct feasibility studies on the agricultural products that can be harvested on the land and the markets for these products. The University, in addition to INKA members, will also conduct seminars for the village inhabitants on the economic opportunities presented by the agricultural resources of their newly-acquired land. Similarly, agreements will be made with NGOs to conduct training seminars in micro-enterprise development, for example in recycling and carpentry, to maximize the number of options for income generation and to maintain self-sufficiency. The members of the associations receive essential training in community organization, environmental protection, production possibilities, micro-enterprise development, leadership and community participation in the design of the urban village. There will also be on-going workshops on what it means to live in a cooperative environment, working collectively to overcome challenges and preserve the community. Lola is taking advantage of her connections with the INKA foundation, the municipal government, the universities and her own background in women's development to conduct these on-going training sessions. Currently the rate of attendance for these weekly workshops is 90%. In addition to feeling committed to making their villages successful, community members are obliged to attend workshops because they are fined when they do not attend. The money they pay in fines goes directly to the association to cover expenses.Through the first association that Lola has established, she has created a dynamic team of 25 women who are helping to drive the process. Over an eight month period they are receiving additional training in leadership and in replicating the model in other areas. This team will help Lola to promote and establish urban villages in other regions of Ecuador. Lola points out that one of the women to emerge as a leader within this group is Rosa Garcia, a single mother of five. When Rosa entered the association she was very depressed and had begun to neglect her own children. She was earning a monthly salary of $30 as a clothing washer, barely enough for subsistence. She rarely spoke at association meetings and when she did it was only to make bitter comments about other members. Through weekly training sessions on what it means to live in a cooperative community, in addition to Lola's connecting her to a psychologist, Rosa's self-esteem has risen tremendously. She has improved her physical appearance and her attitude and has been able to secure more work at an increased wage as a result of this change. She has also risen to be one of the stars of the group of leaders-in-training and, in Lola's assessment, will be a great asset to helping other women through the replication of the model in other areas. Lola has requests to implement her model in Zamorra and has already begun the process of replication within Loja in Obrapin, having started the process of negotiation to acquire a 24 hectare plot of land. The members of the first association, the technical team and she are also developing a guide which explains the processes involved in establishing her vision of urban villages. She convened the Governor, Mayor, Legislators and regional leaders in a meeting where they formalized their commitment to make this project a pilot program with the goal of spreading the model throughout the region and eventually the nation. In addition to the above mentioned locations, Lola will take advantage of her relationship with INKA and establish her model villages in INKA's strongholds of Cuenca, Guayaquil and other areas within Loja. She has met with current President Jamil Mahaud to present her idea and to secure support for spreading her idea nationally.Lola's aspirations do not stop in Ecuador. Through her time spent working on poverty issues in Chile and Brazil she witnessed first-hand the need for this type of program throughout the world, reinforcing her determination to spread her idea internationally. She would eventually like to create an entire global network of "urban villages" that work together to share best practices and lessons learned. She will leverage her previous experience establishing loan agreements and work towards creating a credit and savings program for this global network once it is established.
Despite intense criticism for her ideas and tremendous pressure from her family, ex-husband and wealthy peers to quit working with the poor, Lola has forged ahead with her plans to help the most marginalized sectors to build a better life. From a young age, under the tutelage of a very socially involved grandfather who was a doctor, Lola has been concerned with issues of social justice and poverty. With that concern she studied anthropology at the Universidad Técnica Particular in Loja and at the Universidad Salesiana in Quito, Ecuador. She worked in Chile, Brazil and Ecuador in the promotion of human rights in marginal areas. As Director of a Solidarity Action program and of a program for the Promotion and Training of Women's Groups, she improved the incomes and living conditions of various communities of poor women. She also served as an Alternate Representative in the National Congress in Quito, and in that role was the first woman to advocate placing women's issues on the national agenda.Lola has overcome some severe conditions in her personal life, and has devoted all of her energy towards helping other women and families surmount problems of low self-esteem and poverty. So committed is she to her projects that she will move from her upper-class neighborhood to the first of the villages that is completed. Lola is a woman of stature who is not afraid to take advantage of and or stand up to her various high-level connections to promote what she firmly believes in. As one panelist commented, "This is her life's option. She will not rest until she has achieved her goals."