Community Currencies in Brazil
Over the years, capitalism has constructed a very efficient and set narrative on how economic life should be arranged, becoming a naturalised discourse that seeped into the way that we see, understand, and live everyday life. One of the most profound impacts of this system of thought is its projection of a limited and conditioned reality: a passive consensus that the forms of organisation of our daily lives "belong" exclusively to "higher" spheres of life, such as the state or the market; in this dominant narrative, the people, specifically from the lower classes, are seen as incompetent. But what if these roles were reversed? What if these perceptions of who is economically "capable" shifted?
Since the 1980's, community currencies have been part of a number of non-traditional incentives to promote financial inclusion and local development for low-income territories, the most used being co-financing in collaboration networks. In Brazil, for the past 24 years, these solidarity-based dynamics created over 150 social currencies through community-run development banks.
Palma (Palma Bank)
Fortaleza, Ceará, Brazil
The first Brazilian community bank was created in 1998 by the Neighbourhood Association of Conjunto Palmeiras, a community located in Fortaleza, Ceará, in the Northeast region of the country. Joaquim de Melo Neto, founder of the Palmas Bank, remembers that it all started with an eviction in the 1970's to build what is today one of the richest neighbourhoods of Fortaleza. The local population, mostly consisting of fishermen, was removed and relocated to the southern part of the city, over 15 km away from the coast – and their boats. This, combined with a lack of basic infrastructure in the area, which had not yet been fully urbanised and had been overlooked by government authorities, caused a high degree of poverty in the region; so much that the locals began to meet and organise in seeking solutions to improve their home.
Throughout the years, Conjunto Palmeiras gained houses, streets, a community day-care centre, a nutrition centre, a drainage system and a community maternity centre – all built by its residents, led by a spirit of "we can" and "we are possible", in the words of Joaquim. The controversy though, of being a strong community that gathered, mobilised and built its own social facilities, but still had no money, bothered them. And so during a regular assembly, a key question was asked: Why are we poor?. "The answer was simple: we were not poor, we were impoverished", Joaquim remembers.
Based on this understanding that poverty might be the result of purchases made outside Conjunto Palmeiras, a group of residents conducted a survey with the population and developed, for the first time, a map of local production and consumption which showed that while 1.2 million reais (the national currency) circulated in the neighbourhood, only 20% of people actually bought locally. In other words, 80% of local finances were 'leaving' the community. This survey led to the idea of creating a community bank with its own currency to stimulate and protect local consumption and production. Almost 25 years later, the Palmas Bank has become a national reference in local development and community empowerment.
Orquídea (Botanical Garden Community Bank)
João Pessoa, Paraíba, Brazil
10 years ago, the São Rafael community, a small neighbourhood along the banks of the Jaguaribe River in João Pessoa, in the Northeast region of the country, had a meeting with members from the Federal University of Paraíba, where the experience of the Palmas Bank was presented to them. After a series of actions that included documentary screenings, open lectures and various programmes on the local community radio station, the names of the bank and the currency were defined through popular vote; based on a list drawn up by suggestions that the residents cast in a ballot box. Later on, the images on the Orquídea [orchid] were also collectively decided through an open contest and elections. The drawings range from significant places to significant people, such as an aerial view of the community and Antonio Domingos, one of São Rafael’s first residents.
Margarida (Maringá Community Bank)
Pombal, Paraíba, Brazil
Created in 2016, the Maringá Bank in Pombal, Paraíba, is named in reference to the local legend of Maria do Ingá, an emigrant from the state that left the drought-afflicted northeastern region. The name of the social currency, Margarida, is also a tribute to a local legend: Margarida Pereira da Silva, who was one of the city's most active leaders in the area of education and the pursuit of human rights. The name, also present in the NGO that runs the bank – the over 30 years old Centre of Education Margarida Pereira da Silva (Cemar) –, was collectively decided among community members, and pairs with significant places, landscapes and local culture.
Manguezal (Ouro Negro Community Bank)
The Ouro Negro Bank, created in 2014 in São Francisco do Conde, Bahia, was managed by the town's Community Development Association (Adescom). The name of the bank, which means "black gold", refers to both the oil extracted by the refineries in the region, and to the fact that São Francisco do Conde is the city with the largest declared black population in the country, making it an important place for the preservation of black histories. The currency Manguezal is a reference to the local swamp, where lots of families fish and extract shellfish to eat and to sell. Each bill reflects a certain history and memory of the locals, collected in a month of frequent meetings and rodas de resgate (rescue circles). Unfortunately, the Ouro Negro is currently closed due to lack of funding.
Needless to say, these monies are important public policy instruments, as their objective is not to maximise profits, but to encourage economic development for the marginalised communities in which they operate. More importantly, in their collective process of creating new money, the communities reappropriate their own narrative by remembering the people and the territory as a whole, and by shifting identities, memories and histories that were forgotten, erased or marginalised, therefore restoring their value – literally.
Lila Gaudêncio  is a Brazilian-Uruguayan PhD student in Latin American Studies. Her work looks at economic democracy, radical citizenship and emancipation through community banks and their local currencies.