26 Aug, 2015 | Walker Adams

Urban living and Social issues

The Ins and Outs of a Bazaar Regulation

El Alto's Feria 16 de Julio is an open-air market of 10,000 stalls stuffed with tax-free goods. On market days, Thursdays and Sundays, it is so busy that every intersection feels like its epicenter.

The view is similar from almost anywhere. Tents meet the horizons in dotted lines and tens of thousands of people fill the spaces between them. You can choose any direction and walk straight, expecting to eventually hit the edge, but the market will keep rolling out ahead of you like a treadmill.

The commotion is constant throughout, but there is an obvious territorial division in the market. One part of the market, its largest portion, seeps through an 80-block grid of businesses and residences. Here, two-story buildings heighten the sense of congestion, many of them with shops that spill out into the market.

The other section is a lengthy, open-area stretch along Avenida Panorámica, slightly less disorientating for the occasional billboard as a point of reference. Though Avenida Panorámica feels more open than the grid, my stolen wallet would suggest the area is just as hectic.

Once lost in the maze, the only visual cues to suggest ones location are often the goods themselves. There are obvious landmarks like the adorable-yet-tragic live-animal section, but there are also sections filled purely with clothes, shoes, plants, cars, electronics or food. This deliberate segmentation is the first indication that, despite the sense of anarchy, there is a force governing the chaos.

In fact, there are two forces governing the chaos.

On off-market days, you can see stall boundaries stamped on the pavement. Spaces are regulated by vendor associations, trade groups that grow to as many as 1,500 vendors.

One such association is headed by Carmen Saenz, the manager of Musica Selecta, a booth hawking a wide selection of music CDs. She explains that associations help to give vendors a collective voice, manage vendor permits, act as intermediaries in vendor disputes, and work to keep neighboring residents happy.

In addition, every association has a book of statutes that members must observe. If members fail to attend meetings or show up on market days, they can incur fines or even lose their stalls.

The mayor's office provides the market with a second tier of regulation. It barricades the busy streets every Thursday and Sunday, issues vendor permits, and collects fees from vendors.

Although the mayor’s office makes the market possible, Saenz claims its actions are crippling commerce in certain areas, including the one in which Saenz sells music. Saenz and members of her association do business on the stairs that connect the market to the streets below. Like all street vendors, they are dependent upon foot traffic, and the newly built teleférico diverted that away from them.

Now the mayor's office of La Paz is purging street markets below El Alto. Over the years, the mayor’s office has gradually diminished street markets downtown by controlling the market for stalls. As Saenz puts it, ‘Before, having a stall was like having an inheritance, but the mayor's office prohibited [the sale of stalls]. They had to restrain it. There were more vendors than before, and they did not want all of the streets to be occupied.’ A decade ago, vendors bought and sold stalls, but now, she says, ‘you cannot do transactions. I can give a stall to my daughter or brother instead of selling it, but as you can see, all these occupied spaces are not properties. It is not our property, so we cannot do transactions.’

The government has found a pretext that allows them to downsize sections of the market. Saenz explains that, now, rather than going to the highest bidder, ‘the permits the mayor's office gives to us are for people in need.’ Associations can recommend people for stall permits, but the mayor's office makes the final decision and manages the overall number of permits in each area.

‘If I have a stall and I get old, when I leave the stall goes with me. That is how the mayor's office is eradicating the market down below. If they take our stalls . . . . That is how they will take them,’ Saenz says.

Although the mayor’s office of La Paz has been able to curtail street markets, Saenz does not believe the same is possible in El Alto. “In El Alto, the new mayor is already trying to find a way to coordinate [shrinking the market], but in El Alto the people are much rougher,’ she says. ‘They also have much more need . . . . They are all very united. So I think it is much more difficult.’

To swim in this ocean of commerce, just take the red teleférico up to its terminal station, disembark and walk a hundred meters. Alternatively, you can take the yellow teleférico up to its terminal station and take a 15-30 minute ride in a taxi or minibus.

Photo: Diego Espejo


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