A fair exchange

DEVELOPMENT: Earlier this year Mexican activist Luis Lopezllera Mindez visited Thailand and talked about how a community currency in his home country is giving people economic alternatives

Jeff Powell

From behind a pair of thick bifocals, passionate eyes looked out across the large audience. A grandfather's smile beneath a greying moustache was broken by the words: "Money is the blood of our community."Then the man's voice rose and his fist pounded out the rhythm of his message on the table, "and now that blood is poisoned."Luis Lopezllera Mindez, 63, was 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," he said.

Villagers in Ban Talad, Amphur Kud Chum, examine the Tlaloc.
Mr Mindez subsequently went on to work with credit unions, disaster relief after the devastating earthquake in Mexico City in 1985, and he was also part of the network that fought against the North American Free Trade Agreement, or Nafta. He is currently president of Promocion del Desarrollo Popular (Promotion of Popular Development), an NGO created more than 30 years ago to facilitate the organisation of peasants, workers, suburban settlers, and indigenous people.

Mr Mindez 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 earlier this year. He discussed one of the PDP's most recent innovations-the Tlaloc-a community currency system which has been in operation since 1995. (See box).

Mr Mindez encouraged his audience to fundamentally rethink their understanding of money. "Twenty percent of the global money supply is used for criminal activity. Of the remainder, less than one percent 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?"Mr Mindez believes the global monetary system is becoming increasingly unstable. And he says 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.

Mr Mindez said 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, Mr Mindez envisions a global network linking community-based people's organisations.

"It will be a network of credit-not American Express, but People's Express!"Netrnapit Villamar, a Thai participant, reflected the positive receptions to Mr Mindez' 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."Back on that evening, Mr Mindez 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.

Luis Lopezllera Mindez compares community currency, the Tlaloc, with the Mexican peso. "Unlike the value of the peso, the value of the Tlaloc keeps going up."
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?" he asked.

Mr Mindez replied that, indeed, there had been a dentist offering services in the 'tianguis' from the beginning. Members were free to charge as many Tlalocs per hour as they chose, however, givers and receivers were encouraged to reassess 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. Mr Mindez said no, they had not. "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?" he asked.

All the work, said Mr Mindez, was voluntary or paid for 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.

"Our fairs are like Carnival in Brazil mixed with banking from Geneva!" he said.

After the conference had ended, Mr Mindez travelled to Yasothon province in Thailand's Northeast, 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 attended the conference in Bangkok to hear Mr Mindez speak.

On the first day of his visit, Mr Mindez participated in an 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 Mr Mindez 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 Mr Mindez's assertion that Mexicans can eat food every bit as spicy as Thais; they watched in awe as he eagerly gobbled down mounds of som tam. "Did you know my people were the first to cultivate the chilli pepper?" he told those eating with him. No one doubted him for a minute.

On his second day upcountry, a forum was organised to allow Mr Mindez to meet 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. Mr Mindez talked about 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. She said: "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."Mr Mindez's visit was the first step in fostering links between people's organisations working to establish economic alternatives in Mexico and Thailand. In Mr Mindez's words, the visit "has created a friendship, and I hope a thin but firm linkage between southern experiences in different continents." *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, VSO and Focus on the Global South.

*For more information about community currencies, or this particular project, contact tccs@loxinfo.co.th, or visit http://www.appropriate-economics.org\.

Or contact the Thai Community Currency Systems Project (TCCS), c/o CUSO, 17 Phahon Yothin Golf Village, Phahon Yothin Road, Chatuchak, Bangkok 10900, Thailand. Tel/Fax: +66 (2) 513 3031, 513 5347 Tel (home): 02-940 5021For more information about community currencies, or the TCCS Project, please visit either http://www.cuso.org or http://www.appropriate-economics.org/

Finding a common currency

In 1996, the PDP launched a community currency system, known as Tianguis Tlaloc (in Aztec, Tianguis means market, while Tlaloc is taken from the name of one of the highest divinities in the Aztec cosmology, related to rain, thunder and life). In the system products and services are exchanged using an alternative currency called Tlaloc, alongside the national currency.

The Tlaloc bill represents one hour of work and has an equivalent value of 30 pesos (about 120 baht). There are several denominations: a half Tlaloc, and one, two, three, four and five Tlalocs. Every member of the network of producers, servers and consumers has signed a letter of agreement and has received 15 and a half Tlalocs to start trading products and services with other members of the Tianguis (social market and network). He or she also receives 50 Tequios (tokens) (Tequio is an Aztec word meaning communal effort). One Tequio is equivalent to one peso. While the Tlaloc plays the role of bills, the Tequio plays that of coins. It is recommended that members accept at least 30 percent of the price of a transaction in Tlalocs and Tequios. Pesos are accepted, but the policy is to increase the use of Tlaloc as much as possible.

Every member of the network is in a quarterly directory where offers and demands for goods and services are publicised. Members are people living in Mexico City and its surroundings; the intention is to bridge urban and rural people. There are approximately 150 registered units as members; a unit can be either an individual, a family, or an organisation, such as a small business. Goods and services exchanged range from bees honey to children's toys to carpentry services.