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Barter Clubs Offer Argentines Lifeline
Sat Mar 2, 8:16 AM ET

By Gilbert Le Gras


PRESIDENTE DERQUI, Argentina (Reuters) - With bank accounts frozen in Argentina and thousands of companies bankrupt, the Toba native Indian tribe is surviving by returning to its cashless roots to make a living by bartering.

But far from being limited to the Tobas' dusty reservation on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, bartering has become one of Argentina's most robust growth industries during a recession now in its fourth year.

In the past six months, an estimated 75 barter clubs have sprouted up in and around Buenos Aires -- an urban area that in the 1990s enjoyed a standard of living comparable to many Western European cities.

Some 2.5 million to 5 million Argentines flock to about 4,500 barter clubs across the nation to trade everything from food and clothes to cars, property and even holiday trips.

One in six stores in Buenos Aires is closed for good in what Economy Minister Jorge Remes Lenicov calls the worst crisis in a century.

Organizers reckon 40 million to 50 million "barter vouchers" change hands in these cashless markets.

The growth in the number of markets has not reduced the number of people bartering with the Toba, who started trading two months ago and have seen the numbers of people grow steadily at their thrice-weekly gatherings.

"Before we had the barter market, I could not get new clothes or new shoes. That's the benefit of doing this," Toba native Sonia Diaz said between swaps for her straw baskets.

The tribe decided to open its doors to outsiders and try bartering handmade artifacts to feed and clothe the 150 members of the reservation. Organizers said the market has grown from 40 people to 200 traders now.

"This is the first time I come here and I came because I wanted to get to know the reservation. I think it's a great alternative. It's their only way out of poverty," said Mariana Rodriguez, a radiologist swapping a basket for a bartering token, which is rapidly becoming an alternative currency.


The Toba are not alone in their poverty either. About 22 percent of the workforce is out of a job, an estimated 45 percent of Argentines live in poverty and the peso is worth half its value against the dollar since January's devaluation.

Carmen Albornoz enjoyed a generous benefits package and good pay during 20 years as a janitor at Techint, one of Argentina's largest industrial holding companies, until she was laid off 19 months ago.

She said she used up her severance package by last November and has put food on the table since by selling her clothes at barter markets.

"Fridays we barter here, Saturdays two blocks from here and then Sundays in the square in front of Congress and further uptown on Mondays," Albornoz said. "That is my work week."

Alida Ferrer has also turned to selling her clothes after the middle class family that employed her could no longer afford her services in January.

"I owe 2,800 pesos on my home and I have to take care of my sick sister and elderly mother. I don't want to end up on the street," Ferrer said as people inspected her family's clothes.

Across the downtown bodega-turned-barter hall is Liliana Mamani, a market veteran of the past eight months and mother of six children.

"We are living in very hard times where the (traditional) economy is not enough to satisfy our needs," said Mamani, who sells pies and cakes to help provide for her family since her husband's pay as a plumber is not enough to make ends meet.

The proliferation of barter markets is the result of banking curbs imposed in December to stem an incipient run on banks and attempted to force Argentina's large informal sector into the legitimate economy, analysts said.

"Those most harmed by the banking curbs are those in the informal sector, or outside the banking system, which in Argentina represents 60 percent of the population," said Julio Burdman, director of research at consultant Nueva Mayoria.

"In this context you have the emergence of phenomenon like barter markets which, without ceasing to be marginal and small, are explained by these exceptional circumstances," he added.


For the Toba natives who moved next to Presidente Derqui, a town some 35 miles northwest of Buenos Aires, from the northern province of Chaco six years ago, these exceptional circumstances have breathed new life into their community.

"This is a form of help for those of us who are unemployed and who cannot spend cash. I exchanged some clothes for pipes and electrical parts for our home," said Paco Palacios, a 30-year-old unemployed Toba contract construction worker.

Only two of the 150 people living on the Toba reservation still have full-time jobs. But now bartering has begun weaning the community off its dependence on church charity.

"Each time we have a barter market it gets bigger and things continue to be cheap," Palacios said as he surveyed the crammed communal hall that serves as a market.

Bartering is nothing new to the Toba, a semi-nomadic people who for generations swapped goods like honey for fish among themselves. Argentina's crisis is reviving not only their traditional form of economy but pride in their culture.

"We have bartered for ages but until now it was not legally recognized," Toba tribal Chief Clemente Lopez said after bartering ceramics and a book he wrote about his tribe.

"We've been marginalized since I was a child but this gives us the direct possibility of being equal. We're like anyone else, we have plans for the future," Lopez added.

The 32 Toba families on the reservation live in small brick bungalows with tin roofs and concrete floors. Children, mothers and pregnant women and the elderly eat one meal a day in the communal dining hall on food donated by the Church.

When they have other daily meals, the food comes from what they are able to barter.

"The barter market has helped me provide for my family," Sonia Diaz's father Osvaldo said as he molded ceramic figures to be baked and painted for Saturday's market.