Rutgers professor writes book on Bolivian economic aspects
What brought Professor Daniel Goldstein to Cochabamba, Bolivia is not what became the subject of his third book, “Owners of the Sidewalk: Security and Survival in the Informal City.”
His intent to study the violence and security issues of the city quickly evolved into a study of the formal and informal market, which characterizes the nature of commerce throughout the country.
Cochabamba is home to one of the largest open-air markets, which appear to be a source of chaos with busy narrow streets. Goldstein said he aimed to understand the organization behind the seemingly unorganized system of buying and selling.
“There are two different groups of vendors, one are the legal vendors (formal vendors) who sell in the market stalls and illegal vendors (informal vendors) who sell in the street,” Goldstein said.
Illegal vendors are known as ambulantes, a noun which translates to street vendor. While the adjective ambulante translates to traveling or mobile.
Ambulantes are characterized by their mobility as many travel into the city, usually with a blanket, and arrange their goods in any open area. Goods include anything from produce to various knick knacks, said Amy Torres, a Rutgers graduate who accompanied Goldstein on his first trip to Bolivia.
Those who obtain a license to a market stall are considered the formal, legal vendors, while those who do not obtain this license are informal, illegal vendors.
While working with both groups, it became clear that the line between formal and informal was blurry. Some formal vendors had worked informally and some informal vendors had formal arrangements, Goldstein said.
The way of obtaining a market stall and becoming a legal vendor is the business in itself. The real money is in who controls the market stalls themselves, Goldstein said.
“The government is the official owner of the stalls, but there is this whole underground market for real estate where people buy, sell and trade rights to the stalls," he said. "It enables the wealthy people to accumulate the space they can sell from, meanwhile the poorer people are left out without a way to improve their (conditions)."
This creates a large gap between very wealthy people and the very poor, Goldstein said.
On the one hand, there are laws designed to make people more responsible for their own economic situations and on the other you have laws created to prevent people from doing that very thing, he said.
“It is very ironic. This is the way the system works, to concentrate wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people, exacerbating longstanding inequalities in countries throughout the world,” he said.
Both groups are antagonistic to one another. Yet both are highly insecure from reasons that transcend one another like crime, government corruption and lack of policing, Goldstein said.
The ambulantes are the poorest and most insecure people in the country, he said. They are out in the rain and hot sun all day and constantly harassed by police and formal street vendors.
Part of Goldstein’s project was to work with both types of market vendors to aid in their understanding of one another.
Goldstein wrote his books in Spanish and paid for them to be published in Bolivia to provide an objective report of the problems and injustices the illegal workers face due to their illegal statuses.
Goldstein allowed Rutgers students to accompany him on some of his excursions. These students also aimed to respond to the needs of the ambulantes.
Torres’s group found that the citizens in the area needed a daycare center, as parents often brought their children to the chaotic environment of the open-air market.
Aside from creating a daycare, other student projects ranged from constructing a community center to providing lessons in computer skills, Torres said.
“One of the greatest things I learned in that program was learning how to see things from other people’s perspective,” Torres said. "To step back and listen and learn from others rather than driving the research from my perspective was a great challenge for many of us on the trip."
Francesca Petrucci is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student. She is a contributing writer for The Daily Targum. Find her on Twitter @TheFranWeekly for more.