Jan Tilden describes how the co-operative spirit thrives in Maleny, Queensland.
The free flow of investment capital around the globe combined with the dismantling of national trade barriers has sparked ‘a race to the bottom’, where international markets in the pursuit of profits, not sovereign governments, control the fate of nations. A green economy would move away from the ideology of global free trade and export-led growth to domestic production for local use. The end goal would be economic self-reliance: the productive resources of all countries directed to meet the needs of their own people as much as possible, trading in products and services only when necessary.
About 80 kilometres north of Brisbane a road runs west from the coastal plain, winding up a steep spur. Near the top the road narrows dramatically as it skirts a cliff. A rainforest gully drops away from the edge and there is just enough room for two cars to pass. The temperature drops noticeably. Locals call this section ‘the ice box’. Once you pass through, gum trees and bladey grass abruptly give way to rolling green hills and dark pockets of remnant forest as you enter the township of Maleny.
When I moved to this part of Queensland 22 years ago, the road was narrower and even more winding. Then it followed the original wagon track built to transport Maleny butter to market. From the early 1900s dairying was the mainstay of the local economy and it remained so until the early 1970s when hard times put many of the smaller farms out of business. While the landholders grazed cattle in the vacated paddocks, the empty cottages and sheds on these run-down dairies attracted a new wave of settlers – young urban Australians looking for a different way of life.
I was one of the first of these new settlers in the town. The small farm house I rented had no running water and unreliable electricity. Rent was $6.00 a week, about a tenth of what it would cost now. The farmer who owned it was embarrassed to charge me anything at all. Though not exactly welcoming, long-time locals were at least tolerant: if nothing else we citified newcomers were a source of good gossip.
Still, there was no indication in those days that we would soon have a major impact on Maleny and its flagging economy. And that we’ve done. Since 1979 we have set up more than a dozen new co-operatives in the town, ranging from land-settlement ventures, through main-street retail businesses to a community credit union.
Maple Street Co-op (a food co-op with a retail store in the busiest part of Maleny’s main street) was the first of the new enterprises. Maple Street was opened in 1979 because we wanted to eat lentils, brown rice and fresh vegetables – not the range of tired, tinned produce then offered by the local supermarket. At our first meeting we passed around a piece of paper; people wrote down what they ate and that became the basis for our stock list. We raised a small amount of capital by selling shares to our founding members. And we made two critical choices: we formed a Co-operative Society (a legal entity based on values we cherished, such as social equality and community involvement) and we opted to open on the main street. In the beginning shop fittings were donated and the shop was staffed by volunteers. As business grew people were paid for their work. All staff, including the co-ordinator, received the same hourly rate and we made great efforts to share power and responsibility as much as possible.
The Maple Street model was useful in setting up Maleny’s next co-operative – The Maleny and District Community Credit Union. Founded in 1985 this new co-op aimed to keep money circulating within the area, to invest ethically and to lend to people not normally favoured by mainstream financial institutions. The last of these aims was underpinned by a strong sense of community. We believed that people would be more responsible to a small local organization for which they felt a sense of ownership.
Two years later an even more exciting and radical venture in alternative economics was piloted – a Local Exchange and Trading System (LETS). This computer-based barter scheme has one important advantage over traditional barter systems – exchanges of goods and services need not be made directly between two people. Credits earned from one person can be used to acquire goods or services from someone else. LETS functions like a local currency, except that neither credits nor debits accrue interest. (In Maleny the LETS unit is called a ‘Bunya’, named after a species of pine tree restricted to a couple of mountainous areas in southeast Queensland. The tree produces a large edible nut which was once prized by Aboriginal people.)
A LET system has the potential to buffer local economies from swings in the global economy. Goods and services in the Maleny area (say labour or organic fertilizer) can be exchanged for Bunyas and only the money outlay need be recouped in dollars. If there are no dollars to be had then Bunyas will do just as well, provided they can be exchanged for something the recipient wants. The Maleny LET scheme has worked so well that there are now more than 240 similar schemes operating throughout Australia.
Other Maleny co-ops founded since the LET system include Wastebusters, a recycling operation; Mountain Fare, a co-operative to develop economic opportunities for women; the Community Learning Centre (alternative education); Black Possum (publishing); several co-ops for settling people on land; Tribe (promoting indigenous foods); a co-operative community FM radio station and a co-operative club. The co-ops and the LET system were set up to meet community needs. But they’ve also helped boost the local economy and the town’s spirit. Long-time locals will tell you Maleny has always been a community-spirited place, that the powerful sense of belonging one feels here is nothing new. But the important contribution of the co-ops has been to help maintain this community involvement and power through a time of rapid change.
I will risk speaking for Maleny’s ‘co-operators’ in saying that we are proud of the contribution we have made. The self-respecting country-town atmosphere has not yet been overwhelmed by tourism or the march of suburbia across the countryside. Still, there is no real mystery in our accomplishments. Jill Jordan, a co-op activist and now member of local government, has it right when she quips: ‘I spend a lot of time telling people elsewhere that Maleny is nowhere special. It’s a process that can be repeated just about anywhere.’
Jan Tilden lives in Maleny and has been actively involved in the co-operative scene as member, director and employee of various co-ops for most of her 22 years there. She currently works for the town’s newspaper, The Range News.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7