Community currencies created by groups in Spain in response to the economic crisis alter fundamental aspects of the economic system and favor a more just society.
Jesús G.C. is a carpenter, and he lives in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain. A year after making the city his home, he came into contact with the network of a local community currency called the “zoquito.” He applied for his membership card and started trading carpentry jobs for other goods and services. “When I got here I didn’t have a job. I found out about the social currency and I decided to try out barter,” he says. Like him, about a hundred people are members of this network, in which the means of transaction, the zoquito, is a fictitious currency of trust-based mutual trade. It is fictitious not because it does not exist – you can indeed buy things with it – but because there is no tangible currency: trades are recorded on a card.
Jesús’ latest transaction was to swap carpentry work with a woman seeking a wooden slab to dance flamenco. As payment, she subtracted 45 zoquitos from her card and he added the zoquitos to his card. “Now, I can buy meals from her at 8 zoquitos. I used to pay 7, but the meals she makes are both tasty and hearty, so now it’s 8. In fact, she comes over to have lunch with me.” Like them, many users start out rendering services in exchange for zoquitos and end up bartering like in time banks. “It also helps me in looking for a job,” says Jesús. “If someone needs a carpenter, first they’ll ask if there’s one in the network.”
The whole idea first occurred to Maki Iizuka, a Japanese woman who came to Jerez attracted by flamenco more than 15 years ago, and who now runs an intermittently-open restaurant of Japanese and vegan food. Of course, her restaurant accepts zoquitos as payment for a meal. Maki had in mind the community currencies that emerged in her own country in response to the economic crisis two decades ago, and decided to try the same thing in Jerez. Together with her husband, Nicolás Patris, and other members of El Zoco association of consumers of organic products, she got down to work and more people started joining up. Now, members number nearly a hundred, and to celebrate their tenth anniversary, they aim to host the next Spain-wide meeting of community currency networks.
However, the zoquito is far from being the only community currency in Spain. According to Julio Gisbert, the founder of the Spanish Institute of Community Currency and author of the book and blog Vivir sin empleo, [Living without a job] there are now some 70 to 80 supplementary community currencies. And he emphasizes “supplementary” because “the term community is very elastic.” The type Julio is referring to is more technical in nature, and relates to the generation of such currencies. “One type are mutual credit currencies like the zoquito or the puma in Seville which, like time banks, are based on the exchange of resources, goods and services. The second type are currencies backed by a legal currency like the ekhi in Bilbao, which can be acquired in exchange for euros. The third are fiduciary currencies that are created on the basis of nothing.” His blog has a collaborative map showing many of these.
The boniato, which has been in operation in Madrid since 2013, is of this third type owing to its use of loyalty. The currency is created when a customer makes a purchase in euros in a shop at the Community Market of Madrid (MES). Every purchase receives a credit in boniatos that one can later use to buy things in associated businesses, which then spend the boniatos in other companies or shops of the community market, such as suppliers.
But the boniato can also be said to belong to the second category, at least once a year. Last summer, during the Third Fair of Community and Solidarity Economy in the Matadero of Madrid, more than 30,000 euros in printed boniatos were exchanged for spending on the products and services of MES entities during the event. In turn, these entities can exchange their boniatos for euros when they have a surplus.
More than just a response to the crisis
Community currency is a response to both situational and structural factors. That is, it acts as a vehicle of exchange for people and retailers who are most vulnerable to the crisis and it alters some of the axioms of the prevailing economic system that generate inequalities. A community currency is not a value deposit: it yields no interest, there is no interest in accumulating it, and it catalyzes the local economy. In short, it brings about a change in the habits of consumption, financing and interaction between people.
“Of course it is not, on its own, a remedy to the economic crisis. Many of the groups that back these currencies want a more just society, a different society,” says Julio Gisbert. “There are currencies that are an alternative to the system and others that supplement it…However, there are very few users; perhaps 95 percent of Spain’s population has never even heard of them. This is a minority movement.”
Accordingly, each supplementary or community currency has its own functions, aspirations and objectives. “The zoquito network is, above all, a space for self-education. We carry on small-scale work, slowly but surely,” states Maki Iizuka. “Before we create a new economy, a new way of working as a community, we have to unlearn things. If not, there is no room for learning. Change takes time. The main goal is for community people to have their basic needs met. We have to be able to see people, not only numbers.” People like Jesús, who not only have the opportunity to practice their professions in the network, but can also help others and make Friends while they’re at it.