By Elena Box
It is a sunny Saturday morning, market day in Mataelpino, a village in the hills to the north of Spanish capital Madrid. The stalls have a wide array of products on sale, ranging from natural make-up to rye bread, pottery and clothes. You can even get legal counselling here.
There is an added dimension to the market: the currency one can use in Mataelpino in addition to euros, is “moras” or “berries”. Goods can be bought, and services exchanged on the basis of the “berries”.
The “mora” is one of many people’s currencies springing up in Spain as the economic crisis advances, inspired by old methods such as barter or time-banks. The mora has been around now for a year, and there are over 400 users throughout some 10 municipalities in the Sierra Norte de Madrid region. Several establishments have also signed up to accept payment in moras.
The moras system follows the Local Exchange Trading Scheme or LETS model that aims to reduce the negative consequences of globalisation in local economies.
It is not a new idea. These kinds of social or people’s currencies have existed throughout history and the most recent examples emerged in the 1930s in the United States during the Great Depression.
Spain has several: within Madrid one can find “boniatos” (sweet potatoes) and “bivs”, Bilbao has “gitas”, Valladolid “vecinos” (neighbours); in Sevilla there are “jaras” (a common mountain flowering bush) and “pumas” (cougars) and throughout Catalonia different types of “ecos” (echoes) are being used.
The oldest complementary currency in Spain is the “zoquito” in Jerez de la Frontera in Cadiz. This currency was born six years ago and continues to grow in popularity.
Despite their many different names the purpose of the social currencies is the same: to be an alternative to the euro and help people out. “The goal is to create more cohesive communities,” said a man identified only as Franco, during an explanatory chat in the Mataelpino market. He is one of the members of the mora board, a group that handles the exchange network that offers goods, services and training. The mora exchange system is managed online at a website, lamorasierranorte.org.
The site, officially titled “La Mora, Complementary Currency of Sierra Norte”, has a section with products being offered that include bicycle repairs, babysitting, therapeutic massages and translations at 10 moras per hour, plus material in euros. A tiramisu cake goes for seven moras and a basket of organic vegetables for 10.
“We can all contribute something, be it taking your neighbour’s dog for a walk because he has no time, or mending clothes or offering car rides,” said Mercedes, who went to the Mataelpino market to sell the ceramic items she makes as a hobby.
Next to her somebody else was selling bread and homemade jams; half the price in euros, the other in the complementary currency.
The use of moras combines barter and a time-bank method that involves exchanging services and skills at an hourly rate. The complementary currency exists to ease the transactions. One mora is equivalent to one euro, and charges and payments are made through a free software program.
What are the advantages of the mora compared to the euro? Franco explained that one advantage is that there is no interest on accumulated moras, and the extra dividend is the trust created in the community.
Users can at most build up credit for 300 moras and when the limit is being neared, he or she must spend them in services or products offered by others. Thus, the sum of what is owed and what is saved in all the accounts should always be zero.
Those not familiar with the digital world or who cannot access the Internet can jot down what they buy or sell on cards and the information is later introduced into the system by board members.
To make things easier in markets and fairs, the board has issued clay moras that are later turned into cybernetic figures.
Some citizens are concerned about using the complementary currency because of billing issues. But Franco dismissed those worries.
“Under the law it is understood that the system of social currencies is part of barter and barter is tolerated,” said Franco. Establishments that accept moras, such as a herb shop, a restaurant and a computer shop in the system, are only obliged to issue invoices for what they charge in euros.
What is in store for Spain’s complementary currencies? Some fear they could face the same fate as the Wara Exchange Society founded in Erfurt, Germany in 1929. It sought to fight unemployment with the exchange of goods and services based on coupons and spread through different regions with great success.
But two years later the Finance Ministry banned it and any kind of alternative currency in Germany. Spain has the highest number of complementary currency communities with 148 registered; in distant second place is the United States with 87. The most popular software to run the currency sites was developed in South Africa.
Of course, the complementary currency system has its critics who argue that it is usurping the regular monetary system. But, as Franco said, there are some people who now depend on moras to make ends meet.
The board is currently considering the possibility of making small loans in moras to the neediest families.