SANTIAGO TIANGUISTENCO, January 23 – As some look to alternative economies to cope with the financial crisis, inhabitants of this village outside Mexico City are ahead of the game, using a centuries-old wooden currency.
Every Tuesday, local women arrive from the mountains with piles of broken firewood on their backs to the village of mainly indigenous people.
No money or credit cards change hands at the Santiago Tianguistenco market, some 60 miles (100 kilometers) from the Mexican capital, only pieces of wood, in exchange for food, soap, clothes and toys.
The Santiago barter market was founded in 1820 and is older than the village it lies in. In the Nahuatl indigenous language, "tianguistenco" means "on the edge of the market."
"The market already existed when I was a child. We come every week for food, clothes, for lots of little things," one female customer said, declining to give her name, as she waited in a queue in front of a stall selling roast pork.
At the front of the line, she handed over a dozen pieces of wood for two pieces of juicy meat.
A little farther away, behind a lorry, another woman exchanged two pieces of wood for an orange, while others swapped 10 pieces for three measures of cooked rice or stew.
On that day, washing soap was priced at 25 pieces of wood per half kilo (one pound), 50 pieces bought one kilo (two pounds) of beans, salt or sugar and 100 bought one liter (0.2 gallons) of cooking oil.
Second-hand clothes cost 10 pieces of wood per item, while old dolls and toys cost five.
The wood carriers, women from the local Nahuatl, Otomi or Tlahuica ethnicities, declined to be photographed or to give their names.
— They live off the forest but look after it —
"Why do you want to know my name? I know how it will be used afterwards," one woman said, looking suspiciously at the camera.
"Four years ago, police came here and took everyone away, 300 people in one go. They accused them of illegally cutting wood and that\’s why they\’re scared," said Ernestina Ortiz, from the indigenous bartering council which oversees the market.
Mexico has one of the fastest deforestation rates in the world, and the government has in recent years increased penalties for illegal tree felling. In forests around the capital, it is punishable with prison sentences.
Environmental groups meanwhile are seeking a widespread wood certification scheme.
"But these people don\’t cut trees down, they only pick up pieces of dry wood from the ground. They live off the forest but they look after it, they clean it and they even plant trees," Ortiz said.
"Wood bartering is part of the local culture. Those people belong to very poor communities and if we didn\’t let them come to exchange wood, they wouldn\’t have anything to eat," Ortiz added.
There are rules for bartering including different calibers of wood. Sticks must be as long as three hands and as wide as a fist and at least two are needed for an exchange.
A bundle of sticks one meter (three feet) long is enough to obtain a week\’s food for three people.
The council has an unspoken accord with the authorities, who have lifted a surveillance system on the market. But some police officers still show up to take bribes.
Market traders, meanwhile, are more talkative than the wood carriers.
"I bring cacti, beans and fried fish to sell, and their wood is useful for me because gas is very expensive. I also exchange small pieces of wood for salt, sugar or soup," said 62-year-old trader Julia Mejia.
Arturo Rosales, who has used the market for years, said he comes to "preserve the barter tradition" with second-hand clothes, soap and toys.