Bioregionalism, Tribal Sovereignty, and Regional Banking


The idea that America is to be understood as a land of regions is as old as the first 17th-century settlements, but it was not until the late 19th century that those regions were seen as having a physiographic – or as we would say, an ecological – character. And though historians and sociologists as well as geographers and biologists continued to examine and develop the importance or regionalism in American life, it was not until the 1960’s that the idea of the “bioregion” was first advanced and not until the 1970’s that it began to take hold.

Today, just a decade later, bioregionalism represents what seems to me to be at once the most interesting ecological as well as promising political movement in the U.S.

There are, by my loose count, something like twenty bioregional organizations now at work, not including, perhaps, another forty or fifty regional groups and countless individuals with similar local and environmental (if not explicitly bioregional) concerns. They are located from coast to coast, from the Slocan Valley in British Columbia to the Rio Grande in Texas-Mexico, from the Soronan Desert in Arizona to Cape Cod on the Atlantic, and in between include groups of Northern and Southern California, the Rockies, the High Plains of Wyoming, the Kansas River Watershed, the Ozarks, the Appalachians, the Hudson Valley, and Southern New England.

But just what—after all—is bioregionalism?

It would be nice if I could provide a quick, simple answer to that. But the fact is that at this point it is more an attitude than a construct, more a way of learning to think than an ideology. And the definitions, the precise terms of the vocabulary for the movement, have yet to be fully worked out — are, indeed, being discussed and pondered regularly.

But in rawest terms, it is agreed that a bioregion is a geographical area whose rough boundaries are set by Nature, not Humankind, distinguishable from other areas by characteristics of flora, fauna, water, climate, rocks and soils, landforms, and the human settlements and culture those characteristics have given rise to. A watershed — that is, the flows and valleys of a major river system — may be seen as a bioregion; or a desert, or a forest; or something larger but still coherent, such as the Rockies, say, or the Great Plains, or the Appalachians.

Bioregionalism, then, is the understanding of the ecological realities that surround us and the attempt to work out economic and political systems that recognize them. David Haenke, one of the prime movers of the Ozark Area Community Congress or OACC (named for the region’s totem tree), puts it this way:

“Bioregionalism deals with the bioregion as a whole system comprised of a set of diverse, integrated natural sub-systems (atmospheric, hydrologic, biologic, geologic) run by ecological laws with which humans (as one species among many) must work in cooperation if there is to be a substantial future.

These laws form the basis for the design of all long-term human systems, economic, technological,   agricultural,  and  political. Political  ecology  is  the politics of bioregionalism.”

As Haenke suggests, when we begin thinking in bioregional  terms,  when  we come to have a new appreciation for the importance of the ecology we live in, then many other perceptions follow.

We come to understand the forces Nature has laid down for us and learn to live—to farm, to manufacture, to travel, to build—within them instead of in violation of them.

We begin to see where our water really comes from, and our food and our energy and our products, and we can perceive in a new way how an ecosystem might be naturally, organically balanced—and the awful dangers posed by our various disruptions of that balance.

We come to understand the natural carrying capacity of the region—what it can produce and what its limits are—and develop the bounties that can be had within them.

We start to appreciate the real costs of our present reckless disregard for bioregional realities—the actual effects of soil erosion and water pollution, the social disruption of big utilities and suburban developments, the foolish waste and vassalage of our dependencies on imported foods and energy and other necessities.

And we finally comprehend that if there is to be salvation for this world, it will come through the development of these bioregions into fully empowered, politically autonomous, economically self-sufficient social units in which bioregional citizens understand, and control, the decisions that effect their lives.

Considering the enormities that imperil us now, the result of ignoring bioregional realities, it is hardly surprising that the bioregional movement has grown so far so fast. It may be, I have come to feel, our last chance.

-Kirkpatrick Sale

Kirkpatrick Sale, author of Human Scale and a trustee of the Center, will be one of the keynote speakers at the Third Annual E. F. Schumacher Lectures to be held at Mt. Holyoke College in Hadley, MA on October 15th. The theme of the Lecture Series will be Thinking Bioregionally: Ecological Politics for the 1980’s. Mr. Sale is interested in establishing a Decentralist Center that would collect the papers and publish the works of E. F. Schumacher and other human scale philosophers. 

A Global Sense Of Urgency

The third Schumacher Center seminar, “Tools for Community Economic Self-Reliance”, was held at Bard College in New York State. Though sponsored locally by the Hudson Valley Grass Roots Energy and Environmental Network (a bioregional group publishing the GREEN Times), participants came from around the world, giving a global scope and content to the discussions. Because of this context, participants found that they spoke, not just as members of the organizations which sent them, but as representatives of their region and culture.

The questions on the floor were not primarily, “How can my business or organization achieve a level of self-financing?”, but rather, “What programs should my organization initiate and encourage so that my region and the people of that region can achieve greater economic self-reliance, in a manner harmonious with the nature of the land arid on a scale ensuring human dignity?”

Susan Witt, Bob Swann, George Benello, and others at training seminar in Eugene, OR, 1983.

Seminar attendees were struck by the possibilities for mobilizing local initiatives and for linking and building regional ties through the re-introduction of local currencies. Building on the background papers by Shann Turnbull and Robert Swann and using case examples presented by participants, the seminar group worked through the practical details of implementing regional currencies backed by locally produced goods.

There was a sense of urgency at work in the group, accented by the presence of Shann and Pauline’s three month old daughter, Karinya, who brought the spectacle of the future, close to mind. Bill Mollison, author of Permaculture: A Designers Manual, called it the best seminar he ever attended.

Tribal Sovereignty

The Youth Project, a Washington, D.C. based foundation, established the Tribal Sovereignty Program to encourage greater Native self-sufficiency. Daniel Bomberry, a member of the Cayuga Salish Tribe of Vancouver Island, directs the program.

At the Bard seminar, Daniel reported that an influx of welfare payments and the lure of consumer items establish patterns of trade and dependence outside the tribes and hinder the re-establishment of traditional self-sufficient living styles. Yet most of the Nations are land based and have abundant natural renewable resources of their own on which to base a healthy economy and which might be used as a backing for tribal currencies. Already the tribes, as separate nations, charter their own banks. Issuing currencies through those banks would be the next logical step. Trade in the currency would remain within the tribe, thus generating employment and the enterprises needed to sustain a people living “lightly”.

Mr. Bomberry noted that 5 tribes in British Columbia issued commemorative coins on a limited basis in 1978. Well designed silver and gold coins representing each of the tribes were sold in Vancouver stores for $2.00 each and could be used in trade at these stores for the following six months at the exchange rate of $1.00. Although designed as a fund raising project for the Indian Center in Vancouver, the coins were widely circulated demonstrating the appeal of a local currency.

The Tribal Sovereignty Program is planning to organize a series of discussions with different tribes about the potentials and practical details of issuing their own currencies. Schumacher Center staff and seminar resource people have been invited to participate.

A Hank Of Cotton

Govindrao Deshpande walked over 10,000 miles, visiting the villages of India with Vinoba Bhave, the successor of Gandhi. Vinoba was well known and revered in India. When he came to a village, he would call together the villagers and then ask those with more land than they could use to share it with their poorer neighbors. The wealthy landowners would donate land to the village community, who would let it out to those who could use it. Such land was never again sold, but rather it would revert to the village when a farmer moved away or grew too old to farm. In all, some 50 million acres were involved in this “village gift” or “Gramdan” movement. It served as an inspiration to Robert Swann, president of the Schumacher Center, when he initiated the Community Land Trust movement in the U.S. during the 1960’s.

Another of Vinoba’s accomplishments was to simplify the spinning wheel, a symbol of home rule for the Gandhians, into a compact traveling form. It required great precision to find the proper relationship between the two wheels and the proper angle in the cord to the spindle, but the result is a fine piece of appropriate technology. At those meetings with the villagers, Govindrao, a Gandhian, would spin.

1953, Bihar, India, Vinoba Bhave spinning by Frank Horvat.

Govindrao, along with his colleague Arvind Deshpande, co-directors of the Trusteeship Foundation of India, attended the seminar at Bard. The Trusteeship Foundation was initiated to carry into practice Gandhi’s concept that industrialists should not consider themselves owners of their plant and wealth, but rather trustees of that wealth for the workers and the community. In their years of slow work with the heads of businesses, the Deshpandes concluded that they should not wait for existing businesses to convert to Trusteeships, but that it was necessary to work to establish worker-owned and community responsive businesses from the outset. They came to the seminar to learn more about the organizational structure for such initiatives.

However, they found that the discussion of regional currencies also addressed their concerns.

Before the coming of the English, India had many local currencies, which allowed each region to direct its own growth. The centralization of banking and monetary systems, introduced by the English, was one of the factors hindering further natural development of village level economies. Recently, excessive borrowing by third world countries on the international market, has further concentrated and interlocked monetary systems; so that a crop failure or loan default in one area of the world, has international ramifications.

Because of these factors, seminar participants concluded that regional health and stability required re-establishing currencies which, by relative freedom from the international monetary system, would be flexible tools for financing the diverse, labor intensive, human scale industries needed at the village level. Shann Turnbull and Robert Swann spend much time at the seminar discussing the details of how to initiate such local currencies, including the necessity of backing the currencies with products produced in the local region.

Then on an afternoon of the last full day, Govindrao went to his room and returned with a present for Robert Swann. It was a spinning wheel that he himself had used, and it was given by way of greeting and acknowledgement of the sister work of the Community Land Trust movement.

But while he sat there and spun out the cotton on the wheel, demonstrating its use with a skilled and graceful hand, Govindrao recalled that Gandhi, in a similar way, had called for a currency based on a product which could be produced widely and democratically and so give financial power back to those capable of producing, back to the workers. Gandhi suggested that the basis of the currency be a hank of spun cotton.

When spinners in India finish spinning a spool of thread, they then wind it in a 4 foot loop a specified number of times, then tie and twist that loop in a specific way, so producing a consistent product. The weaver receiving the “hank of cotton” will then know where to look for the end, and how much cloth can be made with it.

It is the custom in India for the spinner, as he or she finishes off a hank, to hang it around his or her neck for safe keeping. Gandhi considered these garlands of cotton more beautiful than a garland of flowers, for in it lay the work of the hands and spirit of that spinner.

Gandhi encouraged each village to have a central store that would accept hanks of cotton in payment. In that way a villager might trade his/her spun cotton directly with a farmer for food. The farmer could exchange the cotton at the store for supplies. The store would contract with village weavers to produce the kadhi cloth needed by its customers. The productive work of the spinners remained in the village, generating activity there.

Govindrao and Arvind stated that on returning to India they intended to re-open the subject of regional currencies. They asked Shann and Bob to work with them on the project.


The Ozark Area Community Congress is a growing bioregional group with representatives from organizations across the Ozarks. Though committees are at work throughout the year, the group meets as a whole annually to establish and confirm the framework of their joint initiatives. At the third convening of OACC, the plenary session passed a resolution stating: BE IT RESOLVED

  1. That OACC adopt a currency herein called the OAK;
    1. The OAK would be redeemable on demand for a basket of between 15 and 20 locally produced real goods, for example one bushel of hard red winter wheat, one bushel of short grain rice, one half bushel of soybeans, 5 pounds of corn oil, etc. The OAK may be exchanged for other goods also believed by the exchanging parties to be equivalent in value to the list of foods.
    2. The actual list of goods the OAK is based on would be approved by consensus at OACC IV.
    3. The OAK would be exchangeable in U.S. dollars based on the cost in dollars of the list of goods on which the currency is based;
  2. That OACC empower the Economics Committee of OACC and the OACC Sun Trust Fund to initiate a planning process to establish the OACC in circulation and to develop the facilities to store and distribute the goods for which the currency is exchangeable;
  3. That all people and businesses listed in the “Green Pages” be encouraged to accept OAKS as payment for services deemed to be equivalent  to the goods  the currency can demand.

Though cities like Joplin, Missouri, are surrounded by rich productive farmland, and cities like Fayetteville, Arkansas, support thriving new businesses, still the Ozarks as a region is one of  the poorest in  the country.   Sparsely populated, with poor soil, little cash and much barter, there is a meager supply of funds for loaning to new initiatives. Local banks fear that recent deregulation of the banking industry will send what large depositors they  do  have  in search  of the higher interest  rates offered by large city banks. A regional currency could give much needed support to regional businesses.

Usually initial discussions about alternative currencies raise questions like: “What will it mean for me?” “What interest rate will I earn?”

“What will be the effect on the value of the U.S. dollars I have stored away?” These questions, of course, need to be addressed. The answers will certainly vary in each region and with the stability of the U.S. currency itself. A local currency backed by real goods may appear more attractive as a reserve currency and residents with savings may decide to purchase more of them similar to trading in foreign currencies.

At OACC III, it was interesting to watch the alacrity with which the 200 members of the bioregional congress affirmed the currency resolution. With little cash reserves, few had to consider what they might lose. They could leap directly to the broader implications of what the bioregion as a whole would gain by using its renewable resources as a backing, a guarantee, as it were, for loans made to socially and ecologically responsible business undertakings currently unable to obtain financing through conventional sources. Employment is an important subject in the Ozarks.

Steve Cochran is co-ordinator of the OACC Economics Committee and initiator of the currency resolution. Steve brought the OAK project before the seminar group which worked for a full session on the practical details of issuing an Ozark currency. Cordwood, spring water, limestone and building stones, in specified units of relative value and available in designated centers throughout the region, were added to the basket of local products potentially backing the currency. Although the Ozark Area Community Congress might issue the OAK and be responsible as ultimate redeemer, local banks could be asked, on a fee basis, to manage the lending, keep record of transactions and exchange the OAKs for dollars.

Regional Banking

Seminar alumni Bill Mollison, Cathy Burton and Robert Gilman joined together to form EARTHBANK whose purpose is to provide information on socially responsible banking and financing initiatives. Bill Mollison found that the regional/community approach of the SHARE banking program corresponded to his thinking about agriculture. Not a week goes by without a letter asking for information about how to begin a SHARE-like program. Very often it was Bill Mollison who suggested the correspondence.

Ken Taylor came to the seminar at Bard with a concern about financing worker-manager industries. Funds for such enterprises are usually not available through conventional banking sources.

At the seminar Ken worked out a variation on the SHARE concept. In order to more readily raise the amounts of capital needed for small industries, Ken intends to approach Minnesota foundations to match the deposits of individuals in a cooperative savings account on a ten to one basis. With prior agreement, a portion of these foundation deposits will be used to collateralize the higher risk, venture capital type loans to worker-managed businesses.

In addition to the collateral account, Ken intends to request a small proportion of grant funds for technical assistance. One reason for the great success of the Mondragon system of banking in Spain is the excellent product and business research department of the bank that provides training and assistance to potential managers of worker cooperatives. George Bennello, at the seminar, spoke of this aspect of the Mondragon program as the “socializing of entrepreneurship”. The technical advise helps reduce the risk of establishing a business which is needed and important to the community.

Ron Gaydos writes that he and Stan Kabala, an alumni of the first seminar at Simon’s Rock College, have begun plans for a SHARE program in Pittsburgh.

Traveling Vouchers

The Bard seminar group was lucky that Thelma Garzo of Zoo-Zoo’s Restaurant in Eugene, Oregon, could attend the seminar on a full time basis and convey in person the story of the worker-managed-and-owned restaurant and its innovative financing steps including the issuing of food vouchers redeemable for meals at the restaurant.

Thema reported that one of the members of the work collective was visiting in Iowa when she met someone, quite by chance, who had one of Zoo-Zoo’s food vouchers. The person in Iowa had exchanged it with someone in Seattle who had previously exchanged it with someone in Portland who had originally exchanged it with someone in Eugene. Without intending to, Zoo-Zoo’s had in fact established a circulating currency, facilitating transactions outside the restaurant. The reason all this extra activity was possible was the confidence which those using the vouchers had in the quality and stability of the backers.

Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry, poet and farmer, and member of the Schumacher Center’s advisory board, will speak Friday evening, November 4th at the Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. The event is sponsored by the Lindisfarne Press and the Berkshire Community College. A welcome to any member of the Center attending Mr. Berry’s talk to visit the Center’s home located on Community Land Trust land adjoining the Appalachian Mountain Trail in South Egremont, MA.

Other Initiatives

Pat Swann of the Pratt Center in Brooklyn came to the seminar with a mandate to find ways of addressing unemployment in, and drain of capital from, urban minority neighborhoods. The Cooperative Land Bank, a legal tool for block groups to acquire and hold land, proposed by Shann Turnbull, most interested Ms. Swann as a first step. Following the seminar Shann spent a day at the Pratt Center—outlining the details for such an initiative.

Carol Johnston witnessed the success of a worker-owned sewing company, to provide much needed employment to a Carolina community. The loan money for the project came from a socially concerned coalition of church groups. But such funds are limited, and the source of personnel needed to locate potential projects is also limited. Regional currencies, administered by local banks and lent to new businesses according to decisions of community groups able to work closely with the businesses, could extend the initiative of the church fund, tackling the problem of unemployment in the South in a broad and decentralized way.

Notes from Discussion on Workplace Democracy

Many of the current discussions about workplace participation, inspired by Japanese models, are, when translated to western industries, merely discussions of how to more effectively, “manage the workers.” Workplace Democracy reaches much deeper to actually transform the social fabric.

-George Benello, Arrow Design

In our cooperative when there is only one nominee for a board of director position, that person becomes a nominating committee for the position.

-Steve Cochran, Ozark Food Cooperative Warehouse

In a worker owned and managed system, instead of capital hiring labor, labor hires capital.

George Benello

50% of corporate stock in America is owned by 1% of the people. 80% of the stock is owned by only 6% of the people.

-Jeff Gates advocating Employee Stock Ownership Plans

An impersonal, imperative work experience leads to inefficiency and a low work ethic. In worker owned and managed businesses the social structure within the organization encourages a self-management that makes external controls unnecessary and work ethic high.

-George Benello

Work collectives should not be afraid of sound business management practices or of hiring professional managers. Ultimate decisions and responsibility still rest with the workers as a group and do not detract from the underlying reality and necessity of self-management. Since appointing a manager, the Ozark Food Cooperative Warehouse has increased business, spun off a milling collective, contracted with local farmers to purchase produce, and initiated a food processing group.

-Steve Cochran

From experience I have come to know the struggles, frustrations and disappointments involved in a worker owned and managed business. But at the same time I have felt the comradeship, the joy, the human growth and creativity of working through a production problem cooperatively. I am convinced of the vitality and importance that such new businesses play in liberating work, so bringing about what Lewis Mumford calls the “Primacy of Person”.

-George Benello

Chicago Seminar

Plans to hold the fourth Schumacher Center Seminar in Chicago in February are underway. The Center for Neighborhood Technology (publishers of The Neighborhood Works) will host the gathering.

Resource persons will include Shann Turnbull; George Benello; Scott Bernstein and other members of the Staff of the Center for Neighborhood Technology; and Susan Witt and  Robert Swann of the Schumacher Center.

As in previous “Tools for Community-Economic Self-Reliance” seminars, participants are limited to 25. We are seeking individuals or members of organizations involved in community economic development, small business and industry, financing, community land acquisition or small farming.

Thank You And A Request

Our thanks to the 200 new people who have recently joined the Center. Our total membership is now over 300.

The yearly income of the Center over the last two years has averaged $23,000. A substantial part of this income (almost half) has paid for the cost of facilities and food for the two lectures, three week-long seminars and a day-long forestry conference held during these two years. These programs have served over 750 people directly. Articles and reports generated from these events have reached hundreds more.

At the same time, we have worked locally to establish innovative regional economic models which can be replicated elsewhere in the country. One of these is SHARE, a community banking program for local self-reliance and another is the Community Land Trust in the Southern Berkshires which promotes land preservation and encourages small scale agriculture. Besides using these models for discussion at the seminars, we receive literally hundreds of letters asking us for help in establishing such programs in other parts of the country.

We feel we have accomplished a great deal on a very small income. We would very much appreciate your continued generous support for this work. All contributions are tax-deductible.