Indigenous Ingenious – Ecuador

August 2004
© Jorge Uquillas; World Bank
© Jorge Uquillas; World Bank

The rural indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian communities are the most poverty-stricken social groups in Ecuador. They suffer from desperate living conditions, low schooling levels, high unemployment levels, minimal access to health services, and social and economic exclusion. Recently, however, a new vision has emerged that builds on the positive qualities of indigenous cultures and societies. Working with local communities and NGOs, the World Bank is contributing to the Indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian Peoples Development Project (PRODEPINE) to address the needs of these peoples and to help improve their livelihoods.


Social, Economic and Political Exclusion

The indigenous and afro-descended peoples and cultures have historically been among the most disadvantaged segments of the Latin American rural population. In Ecuador, while poverty strikes at 56 per cent of all Ecuadorians, the proportion of indigenous people who are impoverished is 86 per cent. The nationwide average for schooling is 7.6 years; indigenous people have an average level of 2.4 years and indigenous women 1.7 years. These people lack secure access to land and water resources, which not only perpetuates their poverty, but also restricts investment opportunities and creates conditions for social unrest.

Proportion of population categorised as: Ecuadorian population (%) Afro-Ecuadorian and Indigenous Population (%) Afro-Ecuadorian and Indigenous Women (%)
In poverty 46 86
Lacking access to basic services 52.8 92.7
Illiterate 10.8 42.5 53.2

Indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian communities suffer structural poverty, as they live in ecologically fragile environments (arid zones or mountain slopes, with degraded soils or wetlands, that are not appropriate for agriculture). They have little or no means of production, are illiterate or scarcely schooled, have limited production know-how, few work skills, and a lack of access to social and productive services and infrastructure.

Previous Reform Efforts

Previous structural adjustment policies, the effects of economic integration and the opening of economic markets have all contributed to the impoverishment of indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian communities. These communities are unable to gain stable access to the labour market. When they do gain access they end up in poorly paid and exploitable jobs. Therefore, despite attempts at economic reform and opening up markets, community survival strategies maintain a dependence on agricultural activities.

The poorest groups in Ecuador have almost no access to centrally managed, productivity-enhancing public services. Their local communities are often poorly organised and dependent on services that are seldom delivered by the government. There have therefore been widespread calls for decentralisation, but the laws passed in 1997 failed to create a formal political and administrative model for poverty reduction.

In 1998, however, the adoption of a new Constitution recognised Ecuador as a multicultural and multiethnic country. This facilitated the recognition of a series of collective rights for indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian peoples. Policy objectives centre on implementing key constitutional rights, broadening access to resources and improving the delivery of services for indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian communities. The government has actively taken up these objectives its medium-term strategy to poverty reduction, implemented in 2003. As part of this strategy, the Ecuadorian government has welcomed help from external organisations such as the World Bank.

The Ecuadorian Government’s Medium-term Programme

The government’s strategy aims to reduce poverty through co-ordinated social and economic advances via a three-fold strategy:

  1. Promoting economic growth and competitiveness;
  2. Reducing poverty and promoting social inclusion;
  3. Improving governance to fight corruption and increase security.

Indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian Peoples Development Project

Despite the difficulties associated with improving the lives of indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian communities, several civil society organisations have taken an interest in promoting economic, social and basic needs development in these communities. The Indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian Peoples Development Project (PRODEPINE – an acronym derived from the organisation’s Spanish title) is an example of such interest. The project was designed to place the empowerment of indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian communities into their own hands. This leads to improved access to natural and financial resources.

© Jorge Uquillas; World Bank
© Jorge Uquillas; World Bank

PRODEPINE objectives:

  • To build managerial capacities among the indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian organisations of Ecuador;
  • To integrate indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian peoples into democracy, incorporating their own view of development and empowering their present resources and human/social capital;
  • To decrease poverty levels by diversifying sources of income and employment;
  • To develop the ability of State institutions to implement a decentralised participatory planning system that responds to the demands of indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian communities.

The project strategy therefore aimed at building the technical, legal and institutional capacities of indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian organisations in four ways:

  1. © Jorge Uquillas; World Bank
    © Jorge Uquillas; World Bank

    Strengthening of nationalities, peoples and organisations – building the capacity of indigenous communities to take development into their own hands, in keeping with their vision and cultural standards.

  2. The land and water component – including registration of land-holding rights in productive forest and ancestral areas; loans for the purchase of land, to mitigate ownership conflicts; and support for a schedule of selected legal reforms. Here the focus is on contributing to better, more secure access to land and water resresources by the indigenous population.
  3. The rural investment component – public, community and private investments.
  4. THE CODENPIE institutional strengthening components – enabling the government of Ecuador to better formulate and execute policies oriented towards the indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian sectors of the population.

Results and Impacts

‘People are no longer saying “we want to be left out of development.” They want to be part of it, but it has to be on their terms. When it comes from someone who has been marginalized, persecuted for hundreds of years, it’s an incredibly powerful message. It’s not about protection, it’s about inclusion, it’s about cohesion, it’s about accountability.’
(Steen Jorgensen)

The emphasis laid on participatory planning has facilitated a break from paternalism, as communities and organisations have become aware of their role and importance as subjects of local development. This facilitated the allocation of investments to the demands of the most impoverished sectors of the population. With the establishment of Local Development Plans, indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian organisations have an instrument by which to negotiate investment proposals with public, private and co-operative organisations:

“The fact that 98% of all sub-projects funded by PRODEPINE responded to objectives and proposals established by the communities themselves in their Local Development Plans sets a precedent that substantially changes civil society’s behavior with regard to development.”
(World Bank, 2003)

PRODEPINE also included a gender programme for promoting equal participation by men and women in all project activities. Importantly, external values regarding gender were not forced upon Ecuadorian communities. Rather, there was an attempt to establish the different roles that men and women play in each of the indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian cultures. This created equitable relations among men and women and ensured gender equity in all projects.

The land and water component secured legal rights to land for indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian communities as well as initiating irrigation projects. This included social irrigation management, crop scheduling, an environmental management plan, final project designs, improvement works and drawings for each irrigation ditch, a project budget, and a financial investment assessment for each irrigation ditch. (For details on irrigation technologies, see ITDG technical briefs at

Lessons Learned

© Ximena Traa-Valarezo; World Bank
© Ximena Traa-Valarezo; World Bank

The project has demonstrated that community development is a process of learning from each other, making it possible to understand the different ways of thinking and different cultures that dictate the actions of those involved.

Working with the communities along the Mira River, a mutual decision was taken to develop a new irrigation system. This was a practical way to reverse the exclusion of the indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian communities. The local community maintains the system, ensuring that it does not burst like previous pipelines.

The project also demonstrates a need to promote participatory planning of local development as part of the country’s decentralisation process. It has emphasised the need for grass-roots organisation of research, and communities’ assessment of their own situations, proposals for solutions and active participation in the building of their own future. Indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian communities understand their problems well and should participate in decision-making processes related to solving those problems. At the same time, the study has shown that successful co-operation between such interests and those of external organisations is possible and desirable.

Looking Forward: PRODEPINE II

On 3rd June 2004, the proposal for the second Indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian Peoples Development Project was approved. Like its predecessor, the project articulates a model of development associated with cultural identity. It builds on the positive attributes of indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian peoples, such as their high social and cultural capital, to promote activities that lead to improved access to resources, higher employment and improved sustainability of their livelihoods.

PRODEPINE II builds on the lessons learned from the first project in the following ways:

  1. Deepening its involvement in the most successful areas (e.g. community investments, land titling, scholarships and institutional strengthening);
  2. Expanding into related areas (e.g. natural resources management);
  3. Mainstreaming attention to indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian issues in selected national sectors and local governments;
  4. Approaching key issues of cultural development (e.g. community values, cultural assets) in new ways.


By using the positive attributes of the indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian sectors of the population, these projects serve as an example of inclusive development initiatives. They demonstrate that notions such as community participation, community empowerment and accountability are not just buzzwords in development. By including the voice of the poor in decisions that affect their lives, a more equitable form of development can be achieved.

© Ximena Traa-Valarezo; World Bank
© Ximena Traa-Valarezo; World Bank

Building on its predecessor’s success, and by remaining true to these values, PRODEPINE II promises to deliver a form of development that is more in tune with the needs of its recipients. This will not only benefit those in the community today, but will lay the ground for a self-sustaining path to development. It is, therefore, the future decision-makers of the communities that will benefit as much from these current projects.





ITDG would like to thank Jorge Uquillas of the World Bank for providing information and helping in this case study.

The case study draws on articles written by the World Bank and the UN.

Further Information


Janet, S.C. (2002). Development, Minorities and Indigenous Peoples: A Case Study and Evaluation of Good Practice. Minority Rights Group International.
Morrison, J. (2001). “Cashing in on Afro-Latin communities: Strategies for promoting grassroots initiatives”, in Inter-American Foundation [Ed.] Economic Development in Latin American Communities of African Descent. Washington: Latin American Studies Association.

Uquillas, J.E. and van Niewkoop, M. (2003). Social Capital as a Factos in Indigenous Peoples Development in Ecuador: Sustainable Development Working Paper No. 15 – Indigenous Peoples Development Series. Latin American and the Caribbean Regional Office: World Bank.

World Bank (2002). Closing Report of the Indigenous and Afro Ecuadorian Peoples Development Project (PRODEPINE). September 1998 – June 2002.

Relevant Organisations

World Bank

International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)

Minority Rights Group International

World Rainforest Movement


ITDG Technical Briefs

Other Relevant Hands On Case Studies

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