Reciprocity forms one of the bases of Andean indigenous communities' philosophy and goes beyond barter: giving for the common good and trusting that you will receive in return. It's not about expecting an immediate exchange.
La Casa de los Ningunos (the House of the Nobodies) is tucked away at the top of a flight of 39 steps on a steep cobbled street in the heart of the world's highest capital: La Paz, Bolivia.
The project brings together the dreams of a group of young people in an experimental community.
Each Thursday, members of the Casa come together to prepare a locally-sourced, natural, vegetarian lunch for up to 80 of their neighbors.
The Comida Consciente or 'Conscious Food' program was the Casa's first major project and now both generates a primary source of income for the community and promotes its values. The lunches also provide a platform for encouraging people to make healthy and environmentally wise food choices. They have spread to other Bolivian cities.
A recent lunch featured a 'conscious' version of fast food - vegetarian, homemade burgers and oven-baked fries. Another meal was cooked in a solar oven. Many dishes feature sabores ancestrales - ancestral flavors - Bolivian traditional foods that have been losing ground to fried chicken and rice, such as quinoa, cassava, corn, fava beans, and plantain.
They also serve 'forgotten fruits' such as uchuva (cape gooseberry or goldenberry), pomegranates, guava, and pacay (ice-cream bean). Fruits or grains are also made into natural drinks, sweetened with chancaca, raw unrefined cane sugar.
A team of Comida Consciente chefs occupy the large, well-equipped kitchen every Thursday morning to cook the lunch. Members of the community prepare tables and chairs for the guests in the Casa's ample indoor shared space or out in the garden, where the community grows fruit, vegetables and herbs to add to the menu.
Ángela, Apniuq, Fabrizio, Gadir and Yumey are educated urban activists in their late twenties and early thirties who have all worked in fields related to environmental and social justice.
They chose the name La Casa de los Ningunos in reference to the poem Los Nadies by Eduardo Galeano. Los Ningunos are the have-nots, those seen as 'nobodies' by society at large - those who are most marginalized in the world. Apniuq, Ángela, and Yumey, the current residents of the house, recognize the need to transition towards a society organized according to principles beyond those of our capitalist system, which drives this marginalization and causes so much social division and environmental destruction.
Finding alternative ways to live and work together around a new set of values is part of that transition. They are re-imagining economic and social relations by putting community needs ahead of individualistic personal benefit and generating an economy with values very different from how society operates at large.
But being in the middle of the city, while offering a huge opportunity to create ripples of change within society with initiatives like Comida Consciente, also presents powerful challenges. The Casa's members must step into the system in order to pay the bills, but also must keep hard at work dismantling the social, economic and political hierarchies that have been in place for centuries. And they are doing it within an urban society which on the whole is persisting with the status quo.
"If we look at climate change as a consequence of structural problems, then we have to go to the root of the structures, step by step. And this project for me has been a very important step towards that root", says Gadir.
The idea of addressing the root causes of climate change, rather than focusing solely on greenhouse gas emissions reduction, is one that is gaining traction within the wider environmental and climate movement. As Cindy Wiesner, a climate justice organizer, has said:
"We see this as a growing movement around systems change-not climate change ... We're very clear about what we're saying 'no' to, but we're also beginning to lift up what we're saying 'yes' to."
What the Casa are saying 'yes' to is a commons-based life which rejects the status quo of individual gain over the collective, profit above all else, and the oppression of marginalized groups that is woven into our day to day relationships-some of the broad dynamics which form part of the capitalist economy and provide the basis for the climate crisis.
Community as a climate change solution
When the Casa first opened its doors over three years ago, the house didn't see itself as a community. It was conceived as an environmental school, a space where its inhabitants and supporters could dedicate all their time to environmental activism, and where meetings, workshops and film screenings could happen.
Soon after starting the project, two members of the Casa had the opportunity to travel to Portugal to visit the Tamera community. They came back from that experience enthused with the idea of community as way of building alternatives to the causes of climate change.
Tamera was originally founded in order to develop "a non-violent life model for cooperation between human beings, animals and nature." The idea is that the tangible practical work of living sustainably goes hand in hand with the intangible, more internal work of changing societal structures within ourselves.
One of these entrenched societal structures is the favoring of the individual over the collective. Apniuq explains, "In the wide view, of global community, it's about thinking about the common good over your own personal gain. This doesn't mean I let go of my individuality."
In one sense thinking collectively is about how our personal choices - such as living a highly consumerist lifestyle -affect others, but it also goes deeper than that. Thinking collectively allows us to build alternatives to the typical work-world, as we develop new ways of working together far beyond just a job - in the Casa the philosophy of community translates into people's inspiration to keep working for social change, their vision for a different world, and the collaboration between them to find the way towards that vision.
While the experience in Tamera influenced the Casa a lot, the Andean Vivir Bien ('living well') philosophy has been a powerful source of inspiration along the journey too. Vivir Bien is not a dogma, but as Latin American scholar and philosopher Eduardo Gudynas discussed in The Guardian, it is a way of life and a form of development that sees social, cultural, environmental and economic issues working together and in balance, not separately and hierarchically:
"It helps us see the limits of current development models, and it allows us to dream of alternatives that until now have been difficult to fulfill."
New economic relations
When we think of the economy, we might think of the job market or profit-driven business. This is the capitalist economy. In a broader sense, the economy is deeply tied into 'living well' - how we spend our time, and how much we enjoy what we do. It's not just about money, but about the generation of various forms of wealth, including happiness.
For the capitalist economy to function it relies on many economic activities that are not considered profit-making, and therefore are mostly not considered deserving of a wage: childcare, cleaning the house, or preparing food to share. Without these life-sustaining but mostly unpaid activities other, profit-generating, activities couldn't happen. Much of this work is carried out by women.
One of the goals of the Casa de los Ningunos is to find new ways of shaping economic relations - everyone's work should be valued. Work in the Casa ranges from cleaning, to working in the veggie garden, to administrative work on the computer, to managing the planning process for Comida Consciente Thursdays.
Those who live in the Casa earn Bolivia's minimum wage of around $240 per month, and everyone earns no matter what they 'do'. This ties into the idea of a basic income - an unconditional income to be granted to all - and challenges the oppression woven into the way labor is valued.
The wage isn't high, but as Ángela explains it is enough because: "I don't have to pay rent, I don't have to pay internet, water, electricity, all of that is included. In that sense I earn well, I don't need more. The idea of the Casa has never been to profit."
The reciprocity economy
Beyond the value placed on everyone's work, the Casa's economy is tied into the concept of Vivir Bien in other ways. Reciprocity forms one of the bases of Andean indigenous communities' philosophy and goes beyond barter: giving for the common good and trusting that you will receive in return. It's not about expecting an immediate exchange.
Fabrizio estimates that around 30 to 40 percent of the Casa's economic flow depends on voluntary contributions, both donated items and people's work. For example, each week at Comida Consciente people help out in the kitchen and receive a plate of lunch in exchange; visitors are also given the option to work in exchange for staying in the guest rooms.
Most of the reciprocal economic flow in the Casa comes from the work of members of the wider community - there are more people who identify as part of the community of the Casa and don't live in the house than there are living in the house.
The reciprocity economy is a vision that the Casa shares with other organizations - Wayna Tambo, a popular education and youth center in El Alto, works on revalorizing Andean knowledge and has developed ways of quantifying the value of reciprocal exchanges. Directly challenging capitalist logic, their indicators for valuing contributions take into account differences in conditions and privilege, so for example the time of somebody for whom it is difficult to obtain formal work is valued more highly than that of a person with a stable salary.
Wayna Tambo and the Casa make up the 'Reciprocity Network' together with other organizations. As Fabrizio explains, the idea of the reciprocity economy is to build networks that are resilient to crises in the capitalist system:
"One big group can help along many small groups, and when these small groups grow, they will also be able to help along many other small groups, so the functionality of the reciprocity economy is to weave networks."
This is the antithesis of the capitalist logic, where the goal is to become bigger than other organizations in order to get ahead of them, rather than favoring solidarity between groups in similar or complementary fields.
The challenges of 'collaboration, not competition' in a capitalist system
While capitalism creates artificial scarcity and hence competition between people and organizations, future economy projects like the Ningunos try to operate through collaboration. The Casa faces a challenge though: as much as they might want to collaborate, not compete, we do all still live in a competitive capitalist system.
As a community in a large and complex urban space, the Casa has to balance developing alternative economic relations such as reciprocity while also generating enough conventional income to sustain the community-there are bills and wages to pay and members are buying the house with monthly payments over time.
The Casa generates conventional income a few different ways. The Comida Consciente lunches some time ago expanded into a Comida Consciente catering business called Rúcula (Rocket, the salad green).
At the beginning, the income from these catering initiatives was sufficient to pay for the costs of the house itself, but not to create any individual income for those working on the project, so the community acknowledged that they would need temporary financial support while the project grew.
Determined not to turn to funding from large institutions, they began to seek support from their local circles, and an individual from the wider community of the Casa offered to support the project through the foundation that he administrates. Currently, their financing covers close to half the costs of running the Casa, a situation the community intends to change over the long-term.
Running a non-profit-driven project in a community setting brings another set of challenges. "We wanted to make it equal, that no one would be the boss", Yumey explains. "But sometimes even without intending to these things come out." Dynamics of inequitable weight in decision-making can arise as people step out of the traditional workplace where the norm is for economic decisions that affect workers' income and well-being to be made by those at the top of the hierarchy.
Letting in the light
The Casa is democratizing their economy by placing decision-making power in members' hands, but just as it's not easy to run a business without a profit motive in the capitalist economy, it's not easy to work together in ways that challenge power relations and privilege when we've been taught that the norm in work settings are hierarchical relationships. As Ángela explains:
"There are things [about the project] which are very much from the [capitalist] system, because we've worked in institutions, in NGOs, because we've grown up in schools with the chairs lined up in tidy rows, we've learned that way and those are the structures we all have."
Operating with reciprocal values and participative decision-making in a capitalist economy brings inevitable challenges and compromises. Yet the Ningunos have persevered, and the work they are doing is opening up the cracks and letting the light in - not only about the injustices of the status quo, but about the possibility of changing it.
And while living in a capital city can provoke more compromise, it can also provide more opportunities to show more people that a different way of living and relating is, indeed, possible.
One of the goals of the Casa is to create positive change in wider society, something they are achieving judging by the success of Comida Consciente. In a few years we may well see more activist communities of this kind springing up across Bolivia.
Sian Cowman is an activist and writer. She lives in Bolivia, where she works as a researcher for The Democracy Center.
This article is based on the Democracy Center's project on the Casa de los Ningunos, produced by Nicky Scordellis, Sian Cowman and Leny Olivera.