Venezuela’s Currencies Promote Cooperation Not Competition

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

The global economic crisis has spread around the world and is bringing many problems in its wake.  As global currency markets gyrate wildly, and people find they can go from having wealth to being poor almost overnight, the question is being asked: “is there another way?”

The global economy is slowing rapidly. Even Iceland – a country recently named as having the best quality of life in the world (Human Development Index) (HDI) – has gone broke, and many other nations around the world will face serious economic crises. People will need to protect themselves from the worst effects of the fallout from various economic bubbles bursting.

Runaway inflation, as is occurring in Zimbabwe – reaching 231 million percent in October, 2008 according to official sources – shows faith in a country’s currency can be sorely tested. But do people and the poor in particular, need to be prisoners of the economy managed by a national currency?

The ‘prosumer’ movement (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prosumer), where consumers take an active role in re-shaping markets and economies to their benefit, around the world is looking for ways to bypass national currencies and make food, goods and services more affordable and stable, improving the lives of the poor. One way this is done is through alternative currencies (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alternative_currency).

Cimarrones, or the Cimarron, joins 10 other alternative currencies currently in operation across Venezuela. They are circular cardboard tokens with a picture of a runaway slave on them.

Supported by Hugo Chavez, the country’s president, the new currencies are aimed at tackling poverty and establishing new economies. The currencies can’t be exchanged for the Venezuelan currency, the bolivar.

It works like this: to be a prosumer, you must first bring something to sell before you can buy anything. The range of products for sale at prosumer markets is not vast, but that isn’t the point.

“It’s magic,” Pablo Mayayo, an Argentinian advising Venezuela on prosumer schemes, told The Economist. “ When you take away money, which is the cause of almost all the great evils in the world, people relate to each other in a different way, by cooperating, not competing.”

Argentina pioneered so-called “barter markets” in response to its economic crises, helping people avoid starvation, looting and perhaps a revolution. By the end of 2002, there were 4,500 barter markets being used by half a million people producing 600 million credits.

“They were organized geographically around church halls, car parks and baseball courts,” recalled Peter North, a Liverpool University geographer. “They offered a wide range of products and services, supplied by professionals, trades people and farmers, as well as housewives and the unemployed. Stalls attracted ‘prosumers’ in their thousands, who paid with credit coupons issued by one or more barter markets. Everyone involved was both a prosumer and a producer, since you couldn’t purchase credits or exchange them for pesos.”

In Rio Chico, a small town in the Venezuelan coastal region of Barlovento, the prosumer currency market has people happy with the prices.

“I grow coconuts,” said Angenia Hernandez. “In the shops they cost 3.5 bolivares each (US $1.63) at the official exchange rate), but we we’re going to sell them at [the equivalent of] 1.5.” She calls it an end to “commercial fascism.”

Because of global currency speculation and investment flows, national currencies are not entirely at the control of national governments. High inflation seriously hurts the poor and low-waged, and national currencies can hurt the rural poor, who become prisoners to high interest rates charged by urban lenders.

Turning to a local, alternative currency has many advantages: it stops currency speculation, stops the flow of wealth to urban areas, preserves purchasing power, keeps trading local. Avoiding the draining away of wealth to middlemen, it addresses currency scarcity, and fosters greater awareness of how economies function and the mechanisms of trade

Criticism of these schemes say it is just a re-run of regressive company currencies and feudal tokens that were used in the past to control people and force them to only buy products from the landowner or boss.

In Papua New Guinea , shells are used for money and are called Tabu.  It is an ancient currency system used by the Tolai people of East New Britain Island . Stephen Demeulenaere (www.network-economies.com), who has worked on alternative currencies around the world and helped with the re-introduction of the Tabu in Papua New Guinea , sees it playing a key role in the local economy.

“Tabu was very effective at addressing poverty,” he said, “because anything could be purchased with it, from a handful of peanuts up to a piece of land or even a car, without needing national currency.  Tabu is produced traditionally by women, so theoretically nobody would suffer from a lack of it.  The advantage over the national currency is that it has a very long history of use, and people trust it more than the national currency.

“Tabu builds wealth by facilitating the exchange of locally-produced goods and services which may not circulate in a ‘national-currency only’ economy, and values activities that may not be considered to be economically viable if the use of national currency was the only option.  In the west we see this where ‘mother’s work’, hobbies, mutual-aid and other traditional under-valued but economically important activities are not valued monetarily.

“By encouraging the exchange of locally-produced goods and services, wealth is built in the community from the ground up.”

Over 75,000 people now use the shells, usually traded in great rings.

Getting the introduction of an alternative currency right is critical. In Argentina, such currencies were criticised for being manipulated by criminal gangs and political forces.

“The main advice I have is to study the community closely, and our website at http://www.complementarycurrency.org, provides free resources for people wishing to start their system,” Demeulenaere said.

“The system must be transparent so that people trust it and participate in maintaining its health and stability; democratic, so that it can not be abused by those in power; appropriate, so that it achieves general social and economic goals and aspirations of the community; and to be complementary to the regular economy so that the system helps its members to improve their lives economically.”

At the Jai Marketplace in Thailand , all of the goods in the market can be bought entirely in the local currency called “Jai’. Jai is convertible to Thai Baht or to organic, locally made cow fertilizer, and is designed to improve the local economy and the climate for micro, small and medium enterprises through the local exchange network.

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