By Tim Johnson
ESPINAL, Mexico — Organizers in this verdant hill town in Veracruz state have coaxed a tiny economic experiment on the citizenry: They created an alternative local currency.
It’s called the “tumin,” which means “money” in the local Totonac language. Each tumin is the equivalent of one peso, but it can only be spent in the region.
The aim: Urge merchants to accept payment in a combination of pesos and tumin, which would spur more spending. After more than a year, about 100 storeowners, tradesmen, doctors, dentists, salon owners, pharmacists, butchers and food vendors are on board. It’s also stimulated local handicraft makers.
But there’s been a snag: Even though alternative currencies are used legally all over the world, including in towns in the United States, Canada and around Europe and Asia, the Bank of Mexico said that Espinal may have committed “monetary rebellion” in violation of the constitution, usurping a right of the state.
Residents are flummoxed at the scrutiny of federal investigators into their town’s little experiment.
“It’s not a substitute for the peso. It’s a lie what the Bank of Mexico says,” said Jose Perez Cruz, a 42-year-old electrician who reckons that the alternative money has increased economic activity.
Espinal hardly seems an incubator for conspiracy. Set in hills near the Gulf of Mexico, the region got sidestepped in the state oil development that took place elsewhere in Veracruz. The closest it’s come to mutiny was back in the 17th century, when a Dutch mulatto pirate known as Laurens de Graff hid out among its glens.
Otherwise, Espinal’s history has been as unpretentious as the vanilla beans endemic to this region rather than piquant habanero peppers.
The brain behind Espinal’s experiment is Juan Castro Soto, a graying community organizer who wanted to give community currency a stab.
Castro and fellow organizers decided to hand out 500 tumin to a group of citizens and set a rule that the local currency would be used for only 10 percent of the value of transactions. If a vendor had a kilogram of fruit to sell at 50 pesos, he or she would collect 45 pesos and five tumin.
Slowly the system cranked into service, and since its inception in November 2010 some citizens are clear on its benefits.
“I feel that it is a way for us to support each other,” said Ana Bertha Escalante, a local dentist who takes partial payments in the currency.
Escalante said she once shopped mainly at chain stores in Poza Rica, a city 25 miles away that she visits on weekends to see her parents.
“I now buy meat from the butcher on the corner, and it’s fresh,” she said, noting that she uses tumin to do so. The price difference isn’t much but her local butcher and hairdresser are happy with the new business.
Experts on alternative local currencies say they emerge with vigor during hardship, matching unused resources with people short on cash.
“These systems are countercyclical. When a global or national economy is in decline, then people naturally find these survival systems to help keep their businesses going,” said Stephen DeMeulenaere, an expert in new currencies and executive director of the Complementary Currency Resource Center, a digital resource center for alternative currencies.
During the widespread bank closures of the Great Depression, scrip emerged in some parts of the United States to substitute for government-issued currency and keep local trade going. Since then, dozens of communities in Europe and elsewhere have turned to local currencies as utopian or green experiments, or to allow local communities to boost business and build social ties.
The oldest ongoing system in the United States is in Ithaca, N.Y., where for two decades “Ithaca Hours” have circulated — each one worth $10, or roughly one hour of labor.
“There are a lot of people who don’t have enough dollars because the formal economy doesn’t employ them at all or employ them fully,” said Paul K. Glover, the founder of Ithaca Hours, who now resides in Philadelphia.
Thus, for example, independent music teachers can tutor students, or carpenters can do odd jobs, taking their Ithaca Hours in turn to be spent at a variety of local businesses.
“We have increased sales tax collections in the city due to millions of dollars in increased trade,” he said.
Glover said an intangible side effect of local currencies is connecting residents to one another, invigorating local spirit alongside the economy.
“A sense of community has an economic value in and of itself. People feel they are surrounded by people who they can trust,” Glover said.
Other U.S. local currencies include the Plenty in the Piedmont region of North Carolina and BerkShares in the Berkshires region of western Massachusetts. Canada’s Salt Spring Island near Vancouver also uses Salt Spring Dollars, and it even has an ATM that issues them in exchange for regular currency.
In many countries, governments recognize the worth of community currencies, even taking tax payments in them or allowing them to operate formally.
In the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, some businesses and consumers use an exchange system known as C3 CompRaS, a variation on the Portuguese word “comprar,” meaning to buy. Under the system, members make transactions without having to transfer real money, leaving deals on a computerized ledger and freeing cash for dealings outside the state.
Many community currencies are far humbler, operating among a few hundred people, struggling with accounting concerns and mismatches in supply.
When Castro designed the tumin, he used famous paintings by Mexican artists Diego Rivera and Rufino Tamayo that he downloaded from the Internet as the background image for denominations of one, five, 10 and 20 tumin.
Investigators from the Mexican attorney general’s office have asked questions in Espinal, and Castro has been told he is formally under investigation.
“They are looking to see if they can find something to hang on us,” he said.
Article 28 of the constitution says the Bank of Mexico, which operates as the central bank, has a monopoly on printing money. The bank press office did not respond to repeated requests by McClatchy for comment.
Castro and others in the town say the tumin is not currency but a mechanism to facilitate barter and trade. They note that another article in the constitution gives indigenous people special rights to self-determination, and half of Espinal’s surrounding population of 24,000 are ethnic Totonicapan.
In the end, it may not be federal prosecutors who sink the tumin but human nature, reticence to adopt new habits, the need for active management of supply and demand and the idiosyncrasies of residents.
Jorge Ricano, a butcher, recently had to move his stall from the center of town to an outlying street. Sales went down. Since Ricano needs pesos for meat and other fixed expenses, he says he can’t afford to accept tumin often anymore. If sales rebound, he said he would take them again.
“It would be really convenient if the people who sell me beef and pork also would take the tumin,” he said, but outside suppliers don’t want the currency.
“We haven’t gotten everybody fully involved yet,” acknowledged Oscar Espino, a local lawyer who has spent many hours explaining to users that they must spend tumin as quickly as they get them to lubricate the local economy.
“Some people don’t spend them, or they don’t know how, or they don’t know with whom,” he said. “They say, ‘I already spent my tumin.’ Or they do what they do with cash — they stick it under the mattress. This gums up the system.”
Juan Jose Escalante Vazquez, owner of the Del Carmen Pharmacy, said the tumin his family accumulates on sales easily get spent on “meat, the beauty salon, the dentist, (and) the chicken and fish sellers.”
But not enough people have adopted the system, he said.
“Some detractors say that this is like a child’s game and that it won’t work,” he said. Others come into his pharmacy and “they are ashamed. They don’t want to ask if you accept tumin.”
Irene Castellanos, a retired teacher who now runs a cybercafe, said she believes the experimental currency will gain adherents.
“I’ve always wanted my beloved Espinal to be known for something, and now it is. The tumin will not die,” she said.