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(en) The Commoner N.6 - Winter 2003 - Mariarosa Dalla Costa - The Native In Us, the Earth We Belong To (3/3)

From <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Sun, 26 Jan 2003 06:56:13 -0500 (EST)

      A - I N F O S  N E W S  S E R V I C E

back from the city: money,goods, knowledge,
relationships. Dona Refugio refuses to buy a  gas
stove; she still prefers the fire in the centre of her
kitchen (Esteva 1994).
At the same time, in the advanced areas,  while
the global economy has continued
expelling a growing number from access to sources
of income by both lowering wages and de-
regulating labour, an increasing number of
individuals are wondering how to link a struggle
wage/income or against its absence with some way
of guaranteeing subsistence; and how to
win back the commons as a defence against the
market and a blow against its pervasiveness.
In the 1980s and 1990s, numerous First World
communities have tried and experimented with
answers to this question, from the United States,
gripped by de-industrialisation and high-tech
unemployment, to Australia, whose most
important export market, especially for food, was
closed off by Britain's entry into the EU.
According to the situation, in these two decades,
struggles and the difficulties of launching
struggles have been flanked by a multiplication,
at the
rural and urban level, of attempts to organise
alternative economies, or at least to open up
alternative economic and social spaces.  And
there have been often successful, and quite
substantial efforts to win back commons and hold
down abilities and resources locally, so that
they are no longer captivated by the distant
mirages of free-trade internationalisation in
production and markets. For many people,
experiments in this direction have represented
sole resource of survival or a resource for
improved survival, in addition to whatever
income can be scraped together,  and besides
whatever struggles for income are still being
An historical precedent worth mentioning because
of its importance is the Unemployed
Citizens League in Seattle  during the Great
Depression - the most extensive organisation for
self-help, in practice  for an alternative economy.
The State of Washington was organised into
22 districts in which the League covered 13,000
families for a total of almost 40,000 persons,
who depended on self-help programmes for the
exchange of goods and services, some of
which were also produced within the organisation.
At the end of 1932, there were over 100 self-
help organisations in the US, in almost 30 states.
Many of them had  their own money tokens
and were involved in reopening for their own uses
small factories closed down by the crisis
(Dalla Costa M. 1983).
Precedents like these are by no means isolated in
the history of alternative initiatives in
the United States,  but similar attempts in the
last couple of decades tend to be something
more than a self-defence measure in particularly
difficult economic times (Ortoleva 1981),
although this in itself should not to be
underestimated since, in order to struggle, one has
eat. The more recent initiatives aim more at
grappling  in a more permanent way with issues
seen as essential for fighting the type of
development we now have,  in order to set another
type of development in motion.
Here, they can be given only a brief mention, but I
think the experiences most worth
citing come under the general headings of 'social
ecology', 'bioregionalism' 20 and  various
forms of 'community economy', which are now
taking new paths and showing a new vitality.
Clearly, a common denominator here is the
attempt to create new relations between
and with the land, at the same time seeking to
relocate resources, goods, capacities, abilities
and money regionally, rather than letting them be
gobbled up by the uncontrollable kingdom of
the global economy and global finance.  I think it
is important to mention urban experiences, or
20 The relevant literature is vast. To mention just
one of the better known authors, Murray
Bookchin,  The Ecology of
Liberty (1995). For a review of ecological
movements in the US, see James O'Connor (1994).
at least experiences in advanced areas since what
is being done in the Third World's rural
zones, although little known in Italy, is easier to
imagine. An objection often raised in Italy is
that these ideas about installing new relationships
with nature, human resources and the work
of reproduction may be feasible in the rural Third
World, but can hardly put down roots in
advanced areas.
I will mention some examples which are not
directly concerned with the land, then others
based on the land as such. But they all concern
the land as a collective space where the
citizens, its inhabitants, are building up
self-organisation to keep, defend and enhance
resources locally.
My starting point will be as far from the land as
can be envisaged, with money, a
resource that is increasingly scarce in the pockets
of agriculturists and blue-collar and  white-
collar, as well as self-employed workers, yet
increasingly abundant in the salons of global
finance whose speculative wagers have already
endangered life for a large part of the planet's
population. The time was thus ripe for many
people to wonder how they could get money, but
ensure that it was a more useful and user-friendly
One approach has been to coin a new currency
envisaged as a means of exchange
rather than speculation, and only valid locally,
something that is completely legal in the United
States and other countries.  The idea is to create
a currency to bolster and set in motion the
local production of goods and services in order to
provide stronger roots for the life-possibilities
and life-choices of the individuals forming the
local community, rather than letting them be
uprooted and abandoned to the poverty and
isolation provoked by global finance's
unpredictable moves.
Among the various schemes for building extensive
alternative economies resting on a
new monetary system, the first place must go to
the Local Employment and Trading Schemes,
whose system of 'green dollars' registers the
coordinated exchange of services by telephone
calls to the central office. The system was created
in the Comox Valley in British Columbia by
Michael Linton, an unemployed computer
programmer. He started noticing how many other
people were in the same situation and developed
an interest in 'community economics'; the first
LETS got going in Canada in 1988. The unit of
exchange is the 'green dollar', equivalent to its
US equivalent, but the currency is not put into
circulation; it remains an accounting unit to make
the monthly credit and debit account supplied to
each participant with the names of the others
and the services they offer. When Britain entered
the EU, Australia had to destroy large
quantities of food that could no longer be sold
there; the result was bankruptcies and extensive
unemployment, so in 1992 the Australian
government invited Linton to get Australian
going and provide whatever was needed to teach
how to make the system work and how to
computerise its management. Now, LETS are so
widespread in Australia that some say they
could easily maintain survival if the market
economy collapses.
The same sort of scheme is also wide-spread, with
some variations, in the United States
and Britain. In Australia, and probably elsewhere,
the schemes are also combined with the
market economy in various ways.  For example,
many people agree to accept 25% of payment
on a LETS account and have seen their business
increase. Above all, many people, by resting
their income and expenditure on the LETS as well
as the market economy, have been able to
lighten the market's pressure on their life and
life-rhythms. Still others have turned their LETS
surplus over to churches which have used them for
the unemployed or people in other forms of
difficulty. Among other things, the equivalent of
LETS handed over to charity is tax deductible
(Meeker-Lowry 1995; 1996).
Another scenario can be found by moving to
upstate New York where Ithaca and
Binghamton are located about an hour's bus ride
from each other. In 1991, Ithaca created a
local monetary system which many other cities
would now like to emulate. The inventor of the
Ithaca Hours is Paul Glover, an expert in
community and ecological economics who wrote,
Angeles: A History of The Future (1984). One
Ithaca Hour corresponds to $10, the average
hourly wage of a qualified worker; its circulation is
limited to the city, but that is all that is
needed since the aim is to keep money locally and
boost the city's economic life. Significantly,
another 400 communities in 48 states have taken
the kit which teaches them how to apply the
system, and they are now following in Ithaca's
footsteps (Meeker-Lowry 1995 p.16; 1996).
Deli Dollars, named after the delicatessen for
which they were invented at Great
Barrington in the US, are also designed to keep
financial resources locally. The shop was on
the verge of closing because the rent was doubled
when the contract ran out. Money was
needed for a down-payment, and normal credit
channels were not available. So the owner
turned to SHARE, the Self-Help Association for a
Regional Economy, which suggested he
should issue his own currency. He called it the
Deli Dollar. In practice, it was a receipt which
became a purchase coupon. Customers who
wanted to keep the shop open lent $9 each and
received a coupon giving them a credit of $10 in
goods from the shop within a given period of
time. Shop, money and professional ability thus
remained within the community.  The example
served as a model for various commercial and
productive activities in a number of sectors. It
even got into the national press and onto the
major US and Japanese TV networks, and
projects inspired by it multiplied (Meeker-Lowry
Another system, Time Dollars,  is already working
in 150 communities in 38 states,  with
thousands of participants. Unlike Ithaca Hours
and LETS, the value of the hours exchanged
can be weighted differently, for example, for
someone who needs costly equipment to supply
the service he is offering. The Time Dollars
maintain the absolute equivalence of the hours
being exchanged.  In New York,  Womanshare is a
special Time Dollar programme so that the
many professional abilities of  women are used,
and used better. It is worth stressing that, in
these systems, the work involved in reproduction
receives the same recognition as any other
work with professional standing, and therefore the
right to a fair wage in the market economy.
As I have already noted, only in exceptional cases
such as the use of costly machinery or other
especially onerous conditions do some systems
adopt other criteria of evaluation. Time Dollar
programmes have been activated in Boston,
St.Louis, San Francisco and El Paso and, in
Michigan and Missouri, they have received the
support of local and state institutions.  In some
cases, they have been incorporated into local
health systems (Meeker-Lowry 1995; 1996).
Moving to yet another scenario,  in her 1995
publication, Mary Mellor (1995) noted how,
over thirty years earlier, the cooperative
movement in Britain found a new lease on life.
cooperative movement was founded in Brighton in
1818, to provide healthy food to its
customers. It grew and developed until, in the
1950s, it could count on 12 million members, or
almost a quarter of the British population. In the
1960s, new cooperatives were formed, many
of them with the aim of supplying genuine
The Seikatsu Club Consumer Cooperatives
provide a similar example from Japan,
linking the cooperative's members as consumers
to the sources of biologically produced food.

In Britain, cooperatives have increasingly spread
through the poor and rundown city
neighbourhoods, to supply cheap, nutritious food,
but also encouraging the creation of small
local enterprises for essential services such as
repair shops and laundromats. As Mellor also
observes, though the point may apply elsewhere
than in Britain, cooperatives supplying
genuine food have come to be run more by the
middle class than by workers or poor people.
These days, however, as I will illustrate below
when I talk about the US, the poor communities
unable to obtain decent nutrition because of the
high level of development are taking the
initiative in cooperative or other movements,
based in any case on self-organised networking
addressed to solving the problem of food. In the
same way, in the US too, it was and is the
indigenous movement's struggles for land which
have radicalised so many battles for healthy
food and a healthy environment in terms of class
composition and a class perspective.  In other
words, the issue of land as something to be
preserved for its value as source of nutrition and
habitat has characterised, and in many cases
recomposed the struggles of Native Americans,
Hispanics, Afro-Americans, Asiatic Americans
and white blue-collar workers. One example is
the struggles against toxic waste dumps which, on
the basis of an environmental racism, are
situated by preference in neighbourhoods
inhabited by coloured people or poor whites
1994), sapping the health of the territory they live
in, their primary source of nutrition.
In Minnesota, Wisconsin and Vermont, the
struggles have been set off by the Bovine
Growth Hormone, given to cows to make them
produce more milk. The hormone has united
animal liberationists, ecologists and small farmers
against big agro-business. In fact, in a
sequence repeated in every corner of the globe,
the animal's ruin is the ruin of small-scale
economies and the environment. It remains an
open question for us, too,  and  offers new case
histories whichever way you look.
In Arizona, the Indians and small white farmers
have joined forces to fight the mining
companies which want the territory of the
reservations because they recently discovered
that it
hides reserves of uranium, oil and coal, and also to
fight agrobusinesses which want the
farmers' land because it is suited to intensive
cultivation.  In this case, and in others, sections of
the population who have always been at odds have
found common ground in defence of land.
But the Zapatista rebellion also releases and
empowers other demands, here as elsewhere.
For the Indians, for example, more force is given
to the suits they have filed to recover the land
stolen from them (Schwab 1994).
But, if there is a multiplication of initiatives for
alternative uses21  of the land against
global economic policies, there is also a
multiplication of conflicts to defend the land from
increasing new uses for the few which prejudice its
use as a common good for the many.
Around leisure facilities such as golf courses for
the wealthier few, blood has already begun to
flow, for example, at Dalat in Vietnam, where the
blood is the blood of those whose food came
from the rice-fields located in the same area (Il
Manifesto  May 26 1996), or at Tepoztlàn near
Cuernavaca in Mexico, where the local people
have risen up in protest because they want the
area designated as fairway and green to remain a
public park and common environmental good
(Cacucci 1996).
In October 1993, the New York Times announced
that the Census Bureau would no
longer count the number of Americans living on
farms.  As the newspaper explained, the
reason was that the 32 million farmers, or a third
of the population, on farms in 1910-20 had
fallen to 23 million in 1950 and only 4.6 million in
1991, less than 2% of the population - a loss
21 I thank Steven Colatrella for giving me
important indications and bibliographical
of half a million in farming population every year
for 41 years.  Moreover, in 1991, 32%  of those
running a farm and 86% of those who worked there
no longer lived on the farm itself. As Berry
observes (1996), this also meant that politicians
no longer had a problem of how the farmers
would vote; they had simply disappeared.
A rural world like this, with all its implications for
land management, the management of
farm produce and unemployment, is matched by
an industrial world where more and more
workers are being left on the streets, as the
backdrop to a  movement now starting to  emerge
in the advanced areas, with food as its main issue.
Born not only to fight the implications of the
existing model for agricultural and industrial
development, but also to try and formulate
different life-alternatives, the movement is
growing in
a number of American cities. Many of them have
been hit by unemployment, followed by the
flight of large stores and the closure of many
shops. The orientation is towards a locally based
biological agriculture to guarantee the community
food, above all fresh and genuine food.
This is the case in Binghamton, the town near
Ithaca mentioned above. When IBM moved to
the Third World and the supermarkets closed
down, new uses could be found for the land freed
up, not only for biological crops, but also for
different crops, discovered thanks a new
availability of time in which new relations were
opened up with the Indians in the local
reservations. The same is true in the former auto
capital, Detroit, and in San Francisco, where
the director of SLUG,  the San Francisco League
of Urban Gardeners, Mohammed Nuru, says:
"It is the entire cycle that we are grappling with,
not just a single issue."  (Cook and Rodgers
The entire cycle is precisely what creates an
impoverished community unable to count on
the normal structures of reproduction such as
decent homes, food, shops and public green
spaces. In this way, self-organisation to obtain
food becomes the engine of self-organisation for
a series of other initiatives,  based on local
abilities and resources and designed to re-shape
and re-draw the human habitat so that different
sections of the population and different abilities
in work are recomposed in a new whole. The idea
of food security for the community started
putting down roots simultaneously on the Atlantic
and Pacific coasts in the 1990s, and there is
now the embryo of a national Community Food
Security Coalition. This has created networks to
ensure the production of genuine food produced
according to biological criteria, and its
distribution at low prices, above all locally.
The coalition says it wants to install a ''more
democratic food system". It links together
125 groupings of food banks, family farm
networks, and anti-poverty organisations, which
not normally work together in the past.  Clearly
reflecting new impulses for inter-personal links,
they create contacts between small rural or urban
farmers, food banks, free meal programmes
for the poor, and low-income communities.  Or
else they have given a new slant to old
programmes such as Community Supported
Agriculture, which dates back to the mid-1960s,
originally guaranteeing fresh milk and vegetables
in the poor suburbs of Tokyo.  Similar projects
were set up in Germany in 1968, and  in
Switzerland, at Geneva and Zurich, in the 1970s.
The first CSA project in the US was inaugurated
in 1985, at South Egremont in
Massachusetts (Imhoff 1996), and similar projects
spread to all the states of the Union by the
early 1990s.  In CSA, the community advances
money to small local agriculturists or supply
direct labour, in the latter case building up credits
for an equivalent quantity of the product when
it is  in season. Overall, there is a spreading
commitment to buying fresh food from local
farmers rather than from supermarkets.

One of these CSA projects begun in October 1995
linked the Southland Farmers' Market
and the University of California (UCLA) in a
scheme to guarantee weekly supplies of cheap
fresh vegetables to low-income neighbourhoods.
The creation of local market gardens and the
building of local markets to guarantee cheap
supplies of fresh vegetables is spreading to many
American cities.
In Austin, Texas, schemes of the kind have been
developed in the Eastside, the poorest
part of the city where 40% of the families are
below the poverty line and have difficulties in
obtaining food, especially decent food.  There and
in other cities, transport has also been
provided so that the customers can get to the
small shops set up to sell the produce. Similar
experiences have been developed at Oakland in
California where activists have built up links
with service networks to supply food to schools
and to the homes of the seriously
disadvantaged.  Thus, the Homeless Garden
Project at Santa Cruz in California is expressly
addressed to supplying fresh food and work to the
city's many homeless.  The basic difference
between these projects and others set up in the
past is that they do not rely solely on the
distribution of food or food coupons by the state or
other bodies,  but aim for "production and
distribution in terms of self-sufficiency" (Cook and
Rodgers 1995; Imhoff 1996; Berry 1996).
Other initiatives for a greater control of the land
include Public Land Trusts in which funds are
put together to buy land to be preserved as virgin
nature or to build homes.   These can be
sold, but not the land they are built on so the the
price is kept more accessible to  poorer
buyers. Up to this point, I have given only some
first examples of alternative self-organisation,
to make the point that the strongest and most
significants  movements emerging in the world's
North and South are proving to be those whose
agenda is food sovereignty and security, and
therefore, above all, the availability of land.
Apart from the few initiatives mentioned above,
many others can be listed as a corollary of a
movement which already has a substantial
itinerary behind it22  in advanced and Third
World areas and urban and rural settings. New
approaches are being experimented,  and what
emerges in my view is an attempt to couple a
new relationship with the land, for cultivation,
habitation and as a public space, with the
maintenance locally of other resources, from
working abilities to money, by reappropriating use
value against exchange value. In this sense, it is a
case of self-organisation in order to
relocalize development.
Movement in this direction marks a clear
difference from initiatives representing a large
part of what is known as the 'third sector' in Italy,
covering non-profit, charity and volunteer
organisations. This is because there is no reason
to believe that, not only capitalist
development, but also its fall-out is inevitable,  so
that the wounds can only be patched up
provisionally. Nor is there any reason to take an
entrepreneurial approach to the malaise, nor
even to activate a volunteerism straitjacketed by
the global economy's laws , nor pursue
ambiguous manoeuvres amidst them, confirming
the subordination of beneficiary to benefactor.
Still less to stand by as spectators of a parasitic
proliferation of transnational bodies and
initiatives surviving thanks to an allegedly
'ineluctable' extension of hunger and death
the world.  Self-organisation, on the other hand,
can start from "food sovereignty" as the first
stretch of an Arianna's thread to follow out of the
"labyrinth of the ineluctable"; self-organisation
22 Still one more example. In Lima in Peru, 85%
of the bus lines are controlled by unofficial
operators. The alternative
transport network makes it possible to cover any
route through the city for a maximum of two
journeys at less than
$0.10. Above all, the network covers the routes
that people really need (George 1989, p. 290).

as the will to say ya basta by linking up with all
those who have taken the same decision,
applying hearts and minds to managing the land,
labour and money to build different paths.
I think some form of bioregionalism or social
ecology or community economy as
described above would be worth building up in
Italy, too. From the struggle for the wage/income
to a self-organisation committed to new forms of
alternative economy  to contain the market
and experiment new alternative ways of living, I
think the 'new globalisation' should be fought
on a number of fronts, by finding new alliances,
discovering old and new commons, and taking
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