In this article we discuss the world of social currencies and specifically the Puma Social Currency Network (referred to as Puma from here on). Puma is a social currency based in the historic Northern Quarter of the city of Seville. People, businesses, professionals and associations self-organised to create their own currency, which has flourished during an economic crisis. But why? What functions does Puma fulfil that an official currency does not?
The purpose of social currencies is to champion a new and sustainable economic model by combining possibilist proposals with a broader vision of social change. It requires rethinking the economic and social mechanisms that regulate our activities and about the transition processes that can lead to a more desirable world. This transition requires individual changes to be accompanied by political changes; it is a collaborative project.
Money is not politically neutral. Official currencies have been planned by financial powers for the accumulation of capital and perpetual economic growth. In contrast, social currencies are created by people as currencies for change which satisfy the needs of individuals, local communities and their neighbourhoods, and are based on values such as mutual support, trust and care.
What is money? What is a social currency?
Moneyis acommon means of exchange accepted by a communityand isa tool to pay for goods, services and financial obligations such as debts, taxes and penalties. Its two basic functions are to serve as a means of exchange and to be an accounting unit.
However, conventional money has a third function: to maintain its value; particularly in money designed to accumulate capital.
The creation of the first mutual credit system or LETS (local exchange trading system) in 1983 in Vancouver (Canada) is usually considered the origin of social currencies. During the 1990s, this system spread throughout the world, although to a lesser extent in Africa and Asia. In a mutual credit system currency and exchange are the same, based on an indirect exchange network that allows users to exchange goods and services within the community. These goods and services, together with trust, back the currency. Therefore, it is not necessary to have access to official currencies to obtain currency in a mutual credit system.
At present, there are many social currencies. Some created by communities and others with the support of institutions such as town councils or NGOs. Some social currencies are supported by an official currency; others are supported by some type of currency exchange and/or backed by waste, time, or physical products – such as those from orchards, etc.
Origin and roots of the Puma Social Currency Network
The Puma Social Currency Network began to take shape in September 2011 following a workshop organised by the Degrowth Network of Seville, led by Julio Gisbert at the Casa Grande del Pumarejo. A core group was established which organised various meetings and workshops to plan how the Puma currency would work. This was done in an open, horizontal and participatory manner to determine the Network's vision and mission, the characteristics of the currency, exchange forms and the design of the savings/record book for recording exchanges, etc.
The process revolved around three important factors:
The Degrowth Network of Seville: Puma was created to reflect the principles and values of this network. It was established as a tool designed with the aim of "living better with less", based on the principles of interdependence and eco-dependence. The aim is that people can meet their basic needs in their local surroundings, from the creation of care networks (residents7) and the possibility of creating their own currency.
Casa Grande del Pumarejo is a symbol of the residents’ struggle in the neighbourhood of San Gil and in the historic Northern Quarter of the city of Seville. The building itself has changed and adapted throughout its history. In the Casa Grande, the neighbourhood struggle has been represented by three Rs: the restoration of our heritage, the reuse of spaces with new and diverse activities and its revitalisation with the inclusion of new groups and uses. Therefore, collective struggle has played an important part in the design and identity of the Puma.
The Pumarejo neighbourhood. Many collectives, cooperatives and related groups have their headquarters in Pumarejo, which is a symbol of Seville's diversity. In addition to the Casa Grande del Pumarejo and the Puma, this neighbourhood is home to initiatives such as theHuerto del Rey Moro, a community-managed allotment and permaculture space; the collectively-managed Tramallol space; and groups of crafts people including los Corralones del Pelícano, Pasaje Mallol y Castellar and many more.Thus, the Pumarejo district is fertile ground for rooting transition initiatives and co-creating through networks and synergies.
Pumas began to circulate and be used in March 2012.
The Puma, a mutual credit currency
The Puma is a mutual credit currency. Hence, the creation of Pumas is totally decentralised – occurring when an exchange is agreed upon. Pumas cannot be converted into official currency and have no material backing.
The initial balance of all Puma accounts is 0 and each account can reach a maximum debit of −100. For the sake of simplicity, 1 Puma is considered to be worth 1 Euro when exchanging goods and services.
Each producer sets a price in Pumas for the service or product that they wish to offer for exchange. When someone else acquires that service or product, Pumas are debited in their account and credited to the account of the producer.
Until April 2017, exchanges were recorded in a paper booklet, and thereafter in an online account (Clickoin). In addition, the Puma Network uses the Community Exchange (CES) platform as a space where users can offer or request products and services.
Sometimes, the Puma takes the form of a mixed currency. For instance, there are events at which Puma paper notes are used so that people who are not yet part of the network can acquire goods or services in social currency and thereby learn its philosophy and operation. Puma notes are acquired in euros, but they cannot be changed back into official currency; paper Pumas may be paid into an account.
Community building is the fundamental principle upon which the Puma is built, along with two other values: the abundance of skills and knowledge, and trust. In addition, the currency serves as a tool to help people get to know each other and create a group within which any kind of currency is unnecessary, and a network in which the goods and services are exchanged without an explicit agreement of quid pro quo, as advocated by the gift economy.
How is the Puma organised?
Our Network is organised by an assembly – an open meeting – and through working groups. The open meeting is held approximately once a month for strategic decision making. Operational and organisational decisions are made within working groups. These are flexible and open to members of the currency community that are in good standing with the assembly.
The current working groups/projects are:
A regular exchange fair that typically takes place on a Saturday in the Plaza del Pumarejo, with the aim of creating a meeting place for the members of the network where they can display, buy and sell their products. It is also a space for celebrations.
It is at these fairs that the currency acquires a mixed form, since it is possible to exchange euros for Pumas notes to purchase products and food at the stalls.
These events also serve as showcases for the project and provide euros with which to promote other groups and projects such as those discussed below.
Generally, income in euros is distributed as follows:
Central Supply: 50%
Care Project: 20%
Restoration of the Casa Palacio del Pumarejo: 20%
Puma de Abastos (Provisions)
Once a week, members of the network meet in the Casa Grande del Pumarejo; typically in the afternoon/evening. This meeting is the primary exchange activity of the network.
There is a tearoom, where homemade drinks can be bought in euros in order to raise funds for the project; the gratiferia (give-away shop), a space to give away clothes or other belongings and take what you need in a self-managed way; and the Central de Abastecimiento (provisions depot), the jewel in the crown of the projects, which allows people to buy food and supplies in Pumas. Half of the euro-income project is invested in the purchase of food, hygiene and cleaning products that meet these basic criteria: they should be fairly produced, ecological and local, and prioritise producers who are members of the network. These products are sold exclusively in Pumas.
The Care Project
This group comprises several associated projects:
- Pumafunding: provides interest-free funding to initiatives of interest to the Assembly. It has contributed to the reissue of a novel that tells the story of the Casa del Pumarejo and has supported Sevilla Guifi (Wi-Fi), which contributes to the project's aim of being technologically self-sufficient.
- The Care Project: cares for the members the network – acting as a mediator or looking for the right people to mediate in case of conflict.
- The management of "returns" to people who uphold the community project. Keeping a project like a currency going requires a lot of work, generally without much acknowledgement or publicity, related to the various tasks involved with each sub-project. From the outset, our currency network decided to highlight this work and remunerate those who do it, even if only symbolically. Thus, every six months, everybody in the Network is asked to self-evaluate, by means of a questionnaire, how they have collaborated to sustain this communal endeavour. Depending on whether their involvement has been permanent, one-off or sporadic, they are credited with 100, 50 or 20 pumas respectively.
Dissemination and Communication
This group is responsible for all types of communication: blogs, emails, social networks, training, lectures, conferences, student service, etc. In addition, "La Farsa Monea", a programme about our network, is broadcast live on the third Wednesday of every month on Radiópolis Radio.
This is the team in charge of managing the accounting, in euros and Pumas.
Restoration of the Casa Grande del Pumarejo
The Puma network has a "do it ourselves" approach to the restoration of the building in which it is based. Therefore, 20% of the revenue in euros is allocated to this project.
In short, the working groups and projects are interrelated; some being totally self-managed or supported in Pumas and others with support in official currency.
As we said at the beginning of this article, one of the main objectives of the Puma is to create community. This is undoubtedly one of its main achievements – the network is currently composed of some 200 active participants (with almost a thousand people connected to it) who participate in the exchange of goods/services to satisfy basic needs in their immediate environments. A multitude of additional projects have emerged from this community, such as La Transicionera, a project that facilitates eco-social transition, and a housing cooperative for unused spaces.
The continuation the Puma project, and overcoming the difficulties involved in an initiative of such characteristics and scope, is also one of the main achievements of the Network. We are pleased to say that it this continuity has been achieved through effective teamwork and being able to adapt creatively and openly to incorporate new ideas, open ourselves to new aspirations and gently close initiatives that were no longer positive.
The projects outlined above are also a source of pride. They have moved the Network towards ever greater economic, financial, food and technological independence.
The challenges faced by the Puma are similar to those faced by many other social groups and project.
One of the main challenges is participation. Sustaining a project like the Puma, which is in continuous state of transformation and therefore needs affection and care, requires activists who are fully committed to it – and to other roles, such as prosumers (producer + consumer).
One of the big questions faced when building a complementary economic model is how to support the people involved in its upkeep, without following mercantilist formulae. Six-monthly returns have been used to track this issue. However, at this stage it is mostly symbolic; the project is maintained by volunteers and we are still far from a solution.
Sustaining the common project sometimes requires specialist knowledge. Creating a safe, effective and efficient space is also a challenge. We need to address the issues of gradual specialisation, the necessary professionalisation of certain activities, and the rotation of post holders to avoid creating privileged power spaces and to prevent participants from burningout.
It is essential to ensure that the currency is relevant and remains a tool that meets the needs of the people that make up the Network. Matching what is offered with what’s wanted, maintaining a positive outlook and confidence in the project and the people who comprise it, generating sufficient income in official currency to allow us to acquire the basic products offered in the provisions depot, increasing the variety of these products, getting businesses to join the Network, etc. are challenges that we constantly face.
We are aware that we are moving in a new framework, between the paradigms of modernity and postmodernity, and are investigating the transformative possibilities that intermediate spaces can offer.
We also accept that we cannot escape our time; as Foucault said: "we do not live in a kind of void, within which we locate individuals and things. (...) we live within a network of relationships that delineate places that are irreducible to each other and absolutely impossible to superimpose".
Looking to the future
The Puma exists within its particular context: the neighbourhood, the Casa Pumarejo and the people who are part of the currency network. Thus, like other social currencies, it has its own particular characteristics. We think that this local area is important – that the Puma is rooted in the neighbourhood. Therefore, our vision is not a Puma for the whole of Seville, but a network of social currencies across the neighbourhoods of Seville that are interchangeable with each other, and with others further afield, whether within Andalusia or beyond. If the main objective is to create community, and a main tenet is trust, then maintaining the local base and forming networks is the appropriate way to introduce social currencies across a wider geographical area.
These networks and synergies already exist. The Puma Network is actively involved in social currency networks at a national level, for example in "Currency Encounters", which serve as a space for the exchange of experiences and synergies.
One of the Puma's strengths is its flexibility. We do not see the Puma and its organisation as fixed, but as a model that changes to reflect the people involved in the Network and their needs, interests, abilities, etc.
Lastly, the vision of the social currency as a tool that moves its community towards a gift economy, based on the principle that "my neighbour does not lack anything (and neither do I)" seems important to us. In other words, we work towards a future where the need for a currency disappears. In this sense, the quality of the community and trust created is more important than the number of exchanges made using the Puma.