Researcher Studying Alternative Economies in Colombia

Bartering is a centuries-old system of exchange and research has found everything from prehistoric communities operated in barter economies to modern day usage of Web  sites like Craigslist enabling people to exchange services and goods.

But University of Arizona researcher Brian Joseph Burke has found that certain communities in Colombia have in the last 10 years begun using barter systems and alternative currencies in a unique way – they are building alternative economies within a capitalist economy.

Burke, a UA doctoral degree candidate in the anthropology department, said it is not clear why people opt to barter certain items and services, how the systems change social relationships, ways the systems evolve and how they can be sustained.

He is determined to find out, saying his research allows for a chance to evaluate socioeconomic innovation and a diverse economy in the making.

"I want to figure out how people are using these systems to construct a livelihood and also learn how it changes their economic vulnerability," he said. "This is especially crucial now given the global economic challenges and crisis." 

Burke has just been named one of 15 graduate students in the United States to receive Grassroots Development Fellowships through the Inter-American Foundation for dissertation research.

The competitive award, which comes with $24,000 in funding, has gone to students studying at Brown University, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of California, Berkeley and other institutions across the nation. 

The foundation, created by the U.S. Congress, provides the fellowships to as a way to "increase awareness of grassroots development efforts while building a community of professionals and scholars knowledgeable in the subject," the foundation's Web site noted.

"Fellows examine the efforts of the rural and urban poor to improve their lives, their methods of organization and production, and the policies and programs designed to alleviate their poverty," the site continued.

The fellowship will fund Burke's field research project, "Barter Systems and Grassroots Development in Medellín, Colombia," for his dissertation for a one-year period beginning in September. While there, he will collaborate with researchers at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana and others.

"One of the big differences would be rather than it being that systems are continuing, they are creating new systems. People are adding this to our conventional economy," he said.

And it appears the people are beginning to control their own economies and social relations, he said, which indicates that economies are not always as structured and commodities may not always be as scarce than thought.

"They are recognizing that there is something lacking in our modern capitalist economy and are trying to fill this with a new economic system," he said, adding that his decision to study at the UA was in large part due to the prestige and work of both the anthropology department and the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology.

Burke intends for his work to combine the theoretical and applied applications within anthropology to understand and explain the more nuanced issues around development and social issues among the populations he intends to study.

While there, he intends to study a middle class community, a working class community and a rural community.

During his preliminary research, Burke learned that people will barter a range of goods and services: agricultural goods, music on compact discs, English and dance classes, massages, handy man services, doctor and dentist appointments, tuition and other things.

"They have set these systems up over the last 10 years and they are working outside of a monetary economy, in part, to meet their basic needs for food, but also to trade," he said, adding that certain bartering programs have been established, some in cooperation with the local government there.

Burke said he is interested not only in social problems but ways in which people mobilize to work creatively to deal with the challenges daily life brings. He became aware of the barter systems in Colombia during a trip working with a fair trade organization that collaborated with coffee growers.

He also is interested in understanding ways that political, economic, environmental and cultural change in the world affect communities of people.

He noted that many participating in the barter system have said they are part of the solitary economy movement, one that proposes a new type of economy that is not purely dominated by a capitalist ideology.

"This aligns with the world social forum and the idea that another world is possible; another economy is possible without competition," Burke said.

"We tend to think of the economy as something that's given and that exists before we come on stage," he added. "What these people are learning is that they have the power to recreate the economy."