For generations in northern Ecuador, a type of bartering known as trueque has presented a unique way to exchange goods and services without the use of money. Such bartering of products is an alternative way of life for communities in these highlands.
Trueque is an ancient cultural practice of the region and is based on the guiding principles of Andean thought and, therefore, economic solidarity. The practice consists of exchanging products, knowledge, and services that others need. Prevailing need is the basis of the exchange, not monetary value. This type of barter promotes complementarity, reciprocity, redistribution, dialogue of knowledge, autonomy, cultural exchange, and cultural revitalization.
As one producer in Natabuela explained, “With bartering, no one loses. Everyone leaves happy and with many products for the home.”
In the province of Imbabura in northern Ecuador, there are different ways of bartering:
- Itinerant bartering: One or several families leave their community with products and go to another community at a different altitude, where families have different products to exchange for what they need. Typical exchanges might be bananas for potatoes, oranges for beans, corn for traditional healing services, or animals for clothes, containers, or mats.
- Bartering at specific sites: This is done on specific dates during harvest periods, such as from June to November and during Holy Week in March or April. These are massive and far-reaching events for different populations. The events are held at long-established locations, such as Ibarra and Pimampiro in Imbabura, where people from colder and warmer areas meet to exchange products grown in the different climates. As an example of the magnitude of these exchanges, during such an event as many as 200 families from Ibarra and 6,000 families from Pimampiro might exchange the equivalent of up to US$50,000 per day. There are no invitations to these events; people simply know the bartering dates and prepare their products for exchange. Participants include children and adults, Afro-descendants, indigenous people, and mestizo people. Participants exchange products piece-by-piece, and entire families participate in the bartering process.
- Permanent bartering: Born from direct sales fairs in Imbabura, this is one of the most recent methods of exchange that has been taking place since 2009. Products are exchanged weekly, representing an average exchange of the equivalent of US$8 per week for a family. This enables producers to assess the exchange value of their production and diversify their diets on an ongoing basis with foods that cannot be easily acquired within their communities.
The Social and Solidarity Economy Movement of Ecuador (Movimiento de Economía Social y Solidaria del Ecuador – MESSE) defines bartering as a practice of a solidarity economy and sees it as promoting autonomy and strengthening civil society. For this reason, MESSE declared 2013 as “National Bartering Year” in the city of Pimampiro. The organization promotes trueque on an ongoing basis within direct marketing processes and in training sessions carried out among its members as well as with local and national partner organizations.
However, it is clear from talking to those who practice trueque that it goes beyond economics and is part of a way of life in northern Ecuador. As one Afro-descendant producer from the Piquiucho community explained, “The whole family prepares the day before we go bartering. We have everything we want to exchange and we know what we want to bring home.”
This producer also noted that it might be difficult to replicate such bartering in other environments: “Hopefully people from other places can do this as well because it is an alternative way of life, although you may not be able to do this form of bartering elsewhere because it is so unique.”