Bitcoin Is Empowering Marginalized Communities In Peru
What started as a simple, one-time $3,000 effort to buy shoes and socks for Peruvian children facing high mortality rates quickly grew into a full-scale effort focused on enabling financial empowerment through Bitcoin.
After a visit to Bitcoin Beach, the non-profit initiative that strives to bring financial inclusion to the coastal city of El Zonte in El Salvador through bitcoin circular economies, Rich Swisher, co-founder and president of non-profit global empowerment group MOTIV, saw the many opportunities that a sovereign and decentralized monetary network had to empower those who have been left out of the traditional banking system.
Now, through a series of programs ranging from medical care to entrepreneurship classes, MOTIV is leveraging Bitcoin to bring inclusion and hope to disadvantaged communities through 15 hubs in Peru.
“There is an outstanding alignment between Bitcoin and humanitarianism,” Swisher told Bitcoin Magazine. “Being able to have unobstructed access to a financial system that is not seizable and not able to be shut off by changing governments is key for people to build hope.”
Barefoot, Freezing Children
Swisher planted the seeds for MOTIV’s operations in Peru after he and Vali Popescu, MOTIV co-founder and director of field operations, discovered that many children in a village there were dying because they didn’t have shoes — such a simple ornament that many of us take for granted.
Swisher explained that this typical Peruvian village is down at the bottom of a very steep valley with mountains all around it. There’s a water source, usually a stream or river flowing through, and people live in a huddled up area and farm the hillside where they often grow maize and grass to feed Guinea pigs — their main source of meat.
“They have to go out and fetch water and it’s really cold,” Swisher told Bitcoin Magazine, adding that “with the feet freezing and thawing and freezing and thawing,” children who don’t end up dying develop circulation issues and other medical problems.
Moreover, Swisher explained that the lack of footwear also prevents children from walking to classes, as going to school can involve a 10-mile commute every single day.
The duo then ran some calculations and saw that with $3,000 they would be able to give each child there a pair of hiking boots, seven pairs of socks and two visits a year to a foot medical specialist. After the initial commitment, they began researching ways to increase their presence in the region and further develop the programs, which were by then starting to help more people. However, it wasn’t until MOTIV found Bitcoin through Alex Fedorak, the non-profit’s director of corporate communications, that it would start a new chapter.
The peer-to-peer (P2P) currency quickly began enabling new use cases, but a visit to Bitcoin Beach would take things one step further.
“I went down to El Salvador, spent a week with [initiative founder Mike Peterson] and that’s really where I got a lot of my ideas,” Swisher said. “I needed to go down there and see what he had going on.”
As Swisher returned from El Salvador, he began implementing initiatives to create community hubs and develop circular bitcoin economies, where people leverage BTC for day-to-day transactions rather than simply buying and holding for long-term price appreciation — opposing the status quo in developed economies.
“We don’t want them to just be HODLers,” Swisher said. “We want this economy to spin off, and they need to use the money that they make.”
While some billionaires are quick to dismiss Bitcoin, people in disadvantaged communities around the world, often left out of the banking system, have much to praise in a decentralized monetary system that empowers them to pursue their goals and conduct local trade irrespective of the conditions seen at the community or country levels.
MOTIV seeks to nourish that reality by educating, equipping and empowering oppressed communities in Peru with Bitcoin, a monetary technology that now underpins most of MOTIV’s developments and projects. But to get there, the group had to bypass a hard mental barrier that most people in those communities had built for self-preservation as they were often scammed when attempting to conduct trade.
In a small village in the Andes, the longest continental mountain range in the world that spans seven different countries along the western edge of South America, a cohort of women saw in Bitcoin a way to bypass societal norms.
“To keep up with all they have to, while doing all of the work to maintain a subsistence lifestyle, has meant that cultural artistry, traditions, and even things like education, have had to go by the wayside due to lack of time, money, energy, etc.,” Swisher said. “They are just trying really hard to survive.”
MOTIV’s program manager based at the organization’s hub in Cusco approached them with the idea to revive their ancestral art and help them earn money — often bitcoin — from it. Along with excitement, however, the idea was met with skepticism.
“Yeah, we would very much like that,” they said, as recounted by Swisher. “But if this is a trick, if you are scamming us, we will kill you.”
Used to being scammed and robbed, these women had grown skeptical of offerings similar to what MOTIV was putting forth. And as Swisher said, they were “dead serious” about their threat.
But after a period learning about the craft and understanding that MOTIV wasn’t trying to scam them with this weird digital currency, those women began selling their crafts in Cusco through the help of MOTIV. A while later, they even began spearheading similar efforts in nearby villages, bringing knowledge about the craft and about Bitcoin to power new grassroots developments.
“We educated them in their ancestral crafts, then we equipped and empowered them largely through networking them into Cusco, and helping them with some transportation,” Swisher said. “With the success they had in Cusco (lots of shops and tourism to sell to and through) they took the initiative to stand up some pop-up markets to sell wherever they see opportunity.”
“They’re excited by getting some of their culture back and actually being able to participate in the economy,” Swisher said. “So they are going to other villages, spitting out the same sort of things to other people, showing them how to do it.”
“The major effect for them is on their lives, the lives of their families and the economy of their village,” Swisher said. “Previously, the main thing they were isolated from was the broader economy. Now, they can build a business and not be hindered by the banking system’s exclusion of their entire class of people.”
These women have been able to place their artisan products in shops in Cusco and even in Lima, the country’s capital. While purchases in the more developed centers are still primarily done with fiat currency, Swisher said the team is focused on establishing a circular bitcoin economy in Cusco, which is already growing, by encouraging people to earn bitcoin and enabling them to use BTC to purchase necessities they need on a daily basis.
“Cusco is a hub for countless small rural and remote villages,” Swisher said. “We are working on building out this circular economy as one large piece, where the hub of Cusco serves all of the remote villages’ needs, while also transforming Cusco into a Bitcoin economy as the major tourist destination that it is.”
Hope For A Better Future
“So many people are disempowered and marginalized that many are just like, ‘Whatever, I got no hope for the future,’” Swisher told Bitcoin Magazine. “That’s what Bitcoin is changing there.”
Swisher explained that, in the villages and municipalities that MOTIV works in, the issue is systemic, as the lower classes are kept at the bottom and don’t believe there is a way to overcome that. A lack of hope for the future plagues these communities, which are left behind by a financial system that does not cater to them or to their needs.
“‘Educate’ is our first word in our ethos,” Swisher said. “We equip them with the tools to use Bitcoin and the knowledge of what Bitcoin is, and then empower them — and that’s the hardest part, letting them know that they can. It is a tough thing to reverse in an individual’s mind.”
MOTIV’s hubs in these communities facilitate the birth of micro-businesses as people begin to see their neighbors bypass that initial mental blockade and achieve some financial freedom by enrolling in a class and, later, independently selling a product for bitcoin.
“When you give people an opportunity to believe in the hope of a better future and you back it up with a tool and a system and the knowhow to actually implement that in their own life, you see what happened to those women in the Andes,” Swisher said, adding that the organization has already helped tens of thousands of people through its programs.
By fixing the money, MOTIV is enabling otherwise powerless people in Peru find something they are good at, giving them the ability to train until they’re able to produce goods and services, and earn bitcoin — which they can then use to buy a pair of shoes for their children’s freezing feet.
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