Colombia signed historic free trade agreements last year, but this is of little consequence to Indian communities of the southern Cauca department who have been trading freely amongst themselves for centuries. Without currency or conversion scales, this other free trade also “plays the market” by taking over a soccer field one Saturday every month in the Alto El Rey.
Getting to this remote region of Colombia is treacherous under good conditions. A dirt road, which unites the indigenous towns of Paez, Nasa and Guambiano, cuts through rocky terrain and arable fields. From El Tambo on the Pan American Highway it can take four hours to reach this meeting place, and many of the farmers must depart on buses before daybreak.
This is all part of a ritual that locals have been carrying out since before the age of formal currency. For the inhabitants of the high plateaus, it is often the only means by which they can barter with those who live in different elevations or near the Pacific Ocean.
A typical barter can bring together some 600 people. Behind the soccer field, the brightly painted chivas are parked neatly in rows, and the Guardia Indigena (Indian Guard) takes care of security during market day. There is no police or military presence on the reservation, and despite the distance between some of the towns, the locals are familiar with the bartering routine and each other.
The barter rules are simple: you take what you need and give in return. There can be no monetary value placed on the goods, as this guarantees a genuine spirit of giving. For someone who lives at 2,400 meters above sea level, fish is a rare commodity as are potatoes to those who reside along the Pacific. “We don’t come here for the money,” shrugs Josleny Hunani as she waits for the market to begin. “For that we go to Popayán or Pasto.”
The relationships that are formed when bartering are often as rewarding as the trade itself. Children get to interact with other children, playing games while their parents busily fill baskets with fruit and corn. Some of the seniors who participate in this cashless economy are known as the “Guardians of the Seeds,” as they share farming tips with others and bring to the market rare and exotic seeds for planting.
The bartering area is clearly marked by rope and the traders take their place, seated in long rows next to their goods. First, the children are allowed into the cash free zone and pick out what fancies them most. When the children return, carrying berries or bananas, the adults take over bartering everything from exotic fruits to blocks of brown sugar.
After a few hours of leisurely negotiations, the field empties and heavy sacks are hauled back to the waiting chivas, where they are stacked under benches and strapped to roofs. With so much fresh produce, time is of the essence, and the Indian Guard organizes an orderly exit. After saying their goodbyes, the campesinos have organized another barter within three weeks in a different community. This way, every community partakes in the “giving,” a fundamental value of rural life.
For the inhabitants of Alto El Rey, life quickly returns to normal after the barter. With pantry shelves decked with bowls of borojó and chontaduro, the barter wasn’t just another day at the market, but a reaffirmation of ancient values and the fact that everyone is always that much richer when they give something away.