BUILDING A WORLD ECONOMIC STRUCTURE WHERE PEOPLE MATTER
When community leaders, activists and academics from all over the world gathered at the Conference on Economic Sovereignty in Thailand in March, the president of a Mexican non-governmental organisation talked about a community currency system innovated by his organisation as an alternative to the global monetary system.
By Jeff Powell
From behind a thick pair of bifocals, passionate eyes looked out across the large audience. A grandfatherly smile nestled gently under a thick, greying moustache. Slight frame in a crisp, white shirt; hands folded, resting lightly on the table in front of him as he spoke. 'Money is the blood of our community,' he began. Suddenly, his voice rose and his fist pounded out the rhythm of his message on the table, 'and now that blood is poisoned!'
Luis Lopezllera Mendez, 63, was originally an architect and university professor of design in Mexico City. His involvement in social work began with the organisation of construction workers back in 1958. 'I couldn't ignore the inequality between the fortunes of the workers who bore the concrete and steel that formed the buildings and the lives of those who lived in them.'
From those beginnings, Luis has been involved with credit unions, disaster relief after the devastating earthquake in Mexico City in 1985, and was part of the network that fought against the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. He is currently the president of Promocion del Desarrollo Popular (Promotion of Popular Development), a non-governmental organisation created over 30 years ago to facilitate the organisation of peasants, workers, suburban settlers, and indigenous people. Luis was invited to speak to a gathering of community leaders, activists and academics from around the globe at the Conference on Economic Sovereignty, organised by Focus on the Global South, in Bangkok, Thailand on 24-26 March. He discussed one of the PDP's most recent innovations - the Tlaloc - a community currency system in operation since 1995. (For more on the system, see story titled 'Tianguis Tlaloc'.)
Luis encouraged audience members to fundamentally re-think their understanding of money. 'Twenty per cent of the global money supply is used for criminal activity. Of the remainder, less than 1% of money flows are related to the exchange of real goods and services. What is money? And why are we so dependent on money managers?'
Luis firmly believes that the global monetary system is becoming increasingly unstable. The onus is on all of us to come up with viable alternatives before its collapse. 'It is like the Titanic. If we do not want to drown, we must learn how to swim.'
Money is an invention of society, not a natural law. Furthermore, it is not the property of either the bankers or the politicians; it belongs to the people. Luis asserted that communities can create their own money, 'symbols of the exchange of not only goods and services, but also knowledge and culture'. Such systems represent an interim step in the transition from a 'profit economy' to a 'gift economy'.
Citing the spread of community currency systems through Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand, Latin America and Africa, Luis envisions a global network linking community-based people's organisations. 'It will be a network of credit - not American Express, but People's Express!'
Ms Netpnapit Villamar, a Thai participant, reflected the very positive reception to Luis' ideas. 'By participating in this local initiative, Luis is in fact participating in building a world economic structure where people matter. We want to create a harmonious, cooperative symbol of exchange for what is valuable to us. This one small village can change the world.'
That evening, Luis was invited to a less formal gathering of those who were interested in hearing more about the nuts and bolts of the Mexican community currency system. One of the first inquiries concerned the issue of valuation. Pibob Udomittipong, of the Spirit in Education Movement in Thailand, raised the example of a dentist. 'If I've invested a great deal of time and money into my training, would I be expected to charge the same amount of community currency for my services as a less skilled worker?' Luis replied that, indeed, there had been a dentist offering services in the 'tianguis' from the beginning. Members were free to charge as many Tlaloc per hour as they chose. However, givers and receivers were encouraged to re-assess the values of different types of work that had been assigned by the market. Were such values fair, or even accurate, under local conditions? If the answer is no, the Tlaloc allows space for the creation of prices which are independent of the global market.
Muto Ichiyo, founder of the People's Plan 21, wondered if the Mexican system had encountered any problems with counterfeiting or theft. 'No,' was the simple reply from Luis. 'First of all, it would be very difficult to deceive people in the network. They all know each other very well. Secondly, what would a thief buy? You cannot buy a car or a TV with Tlaloc.'
A question which struck a chord with many of the representatives of NGOs present in the room came from Peter Burt, a British volunteer working in Thailand. 'Who does all the work in the system? How do you create and maintain commitment?'
All the work, said Luis, was voluntary or paid with Tlalocs. 'Perhaps more important than the economic benefits are the opportunities to strengthen the local social fabric. Monthly fairs are organised to allow producers and consumers to meet face to face, and to create solidarity through a new spirit of exchange - not just goods and services but also cultural and ecological values, like spiritual traditions, art, music, entertainment, health and a sort of intergenerational party. Children take centre stage.' Luis summarised, 'Our fairs are like Carnival in Brazil mixed with banking from Geneva!'
After the conference had ended, Luis travelled to Yasothon province in Thailand's north-east, where a network of villages organised around a rice mill and a herbal medicines centre are hoping to initiate their own community currency system. Two of the villagers had been able to attend the conference in Bangkok to hear Luis' presentations on his experiences in Mexico.
On the first day of his visit, Luis participated in a herbal medicine caravan, organised by local villagers in conjunction with the Friends of Nature, a Bangkok-based NGO. Demonstrations of how to make soymilk and prepare herbal remedies provided an opportunity for villagers to learn from one another. Also on offer were traditional Thai massages and herbal steam baths for anyone interested. If Luis had suffered any stress from the long journey to Yasothon on an overnight bus, it was quickly relieved.
Villagers were able to ask about the lifestyles of their Mexican counterparts. They were perhaps most impressed by Luis' assertion that Mexicans can eat food every bit as spicy as Thais; they watched in awe as Luis eagerly gobbled down mounds of 'som tam', a north-eastern specialty made of shredded raw papaya, fermented fish, lime and chillies - lots of chillies! 'Did you know that my people were the first to cultivate the chilli pepper?' No one doubted him for a minute.
On his second day, a forum was organised to allow Luis to exchange ideas with about 30 villagers from the neighbouring area. The discussion focused not only on the Tlaloc system, but also on the social and cultural roots on which it was based. Luis' talk ranged from the history of Latin America's indigenous peoples to the present-day struggles of the Zapatistas.
Most of the villagers' questions centred on the practical details of implementing a community currency system. How do you start? Where does the trust come from? Perhaps the feeling of the group can be summed up by the comments of Mae Buatong Boonsri of Santisuk village. 'It would be very good if we could establish a community currency system here. I think it will be very difficult, but in the end, we must do it if we are to encourage self-reliance.'
Luis' visit is the first step in fostering links between people's organisations working to establish economic alternatives in Mexico and Thailand. In Luis' words, the visit 'has created a friendship, and I hope a thin but firm linkage between southern experiences in different continents.' - Third World Network Features
About the writer: Jeff Powell is a member of the Thai Community Currency Systems Project (TCCS), a joint initiative of the Japan Foundation Asia Centre (JFAC), the Local Development Institute (LDI), CUSO and VSO. For more information about community currencies, or the project, contact firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit <http://ccdev.lets.net/>.