Paying for Progress: the marginalisation of indigenous Papuan market women

Indigenous Papuan market women (Photo: Dok SKPKC FP)

DTE 99-100, October 2014

By Sophie Crocker[1]

Fresh food markets in Papua are diverse and colourful affairs where mounds of bright fruit, vegetables and fish are sold by traders from all over Indonesia. Informal markets provide the city with fresh and affordable food and are often the sole source of income for traders. However, urban markets and the livelihoods of those who work in them are being threatened by urban development and policymakers’ narrow view of the ‘modern’ city. Since informal markets in Papua are run mainly by women, they are disproportionately affected by the pace, scale and effects of urbanisation. 

For over ten years, a group of indigenous Papuan market women, or mama-mama pedagang asli Papua, have been campaigning for a permanent market in the center of Jayapura. In 2002, following the closure and demolition of Ampera market in the city-center to build a public park, they were evicted by the fire services who forced them out with water, a process overseen by the police and the military. Eventually they were relocated to Yotefa market, 30 minutes away by public transport. The rationale from the Mayor’s Office was to improve the aesthetics of the city, to make the city more “clean, organised and orderly” in order to attract “big business” that would, in the long-run, bring financial benefits for the whole city.[2]

Inconvenience, unprofitability and fierce competition in Yotefa forced the mama-mama back to Jayapura to sell their wares on a tarmac car park outside a supermarket.  For the next five years they refused to move from this location in the “heart” of the city. The mama-mama’s visible displacement attracted the attention and support of activists, non-governmental organisations and local media. They organised into a group, SOLPAP, Solidaritas Mama-mama Pedagang Asli Papua. After years of campaigning at the city and provincial level, in December 2010 they were granted a temporary covered market which, unfortunately, was inadequately equipped (water, waste collection, security, toilets).[3] They are still campaigning for their permanent, centrally-located market. During this time, the mama-mama have established a cooperative, with government funding, to support women to expand or diversify their businesses.[4]

As the capital of Indonesia’s easternmost province and the capital of one of six national ‘economic corridors’ which form the basis of Jakarta’s much-criticised ‘MP3EI’ masterplan, Jayapura serves as a regional barometer of development.  For a municipal government that aspires to be a modern global city like New York, creating a business-friendly image continues as a policy priority.[5] Jayapura’s cityscape includes international hotels, office blocks, shopping malls, government complexes (plus a Hollywood-esque lighted ‘Jayapura’ sign overlooking the bay) to accommodate national and international business interests.

Unfortunately, forced relocation, job insecurity, intimidation, increasing competition and even criminalisation is not an uncommon experience for market-traders in Indonesia and elsewhere. From Mumbai to Mexico City, informal traders are cast as both the antithesis of and obstacle to the ‘modern’ city. They are blamed by politicians, city planners and wealthier urban residents for the very problems caused by rapid urbanisation such as over-crowding, traffic congestion, pollution and higher crime rates.[6] Furthermore, since traders are often identified by what they lack rather than what they provide to the city’s economy, they can become targets of development themselves. The municipal government of Cusco in Peru for example, led efforts to gentrify informal street trade by issuing licences, creating trading zones and regulating prices.[7] Gentrification of trade created new classes of professionalised traders and tensions arose between those who adapted and those who did not, or could not. In Jayapura, this is visible in the spatial arrangement of trading activity along ethnic lines. The mama-mama have been vocal about non-Papuan traders owning shops, market stalls and running wholesale businesses while they are physically marginalised to the street side selling small quantities of lower value perishable commodities.

This narrow view of the ‘modern’ city is having a negative impact on the livelihoods of market-traders in Jayapura, with serious implications for indigenous Papuan women. Displacement from the marketplace increases the risk of further economic, social and political marginalisation. Adapting to the rapid and seemingly irreversible structural changes places them under greater pressure to provide for their families and create opportunities for their children. It is all the more admirable, then, that they have found the energy to take political action against their marginalisation. Yet the women’s actions are disregarded by policymakers as their inability, or reluctance, to adapt to progress. The Head of Markets for Jayapura City stated, “It will be a long process to change their way of thinking”.[8]

Finally, their struggle is not just about access to public space. Their campaign has been infused with cultural meaning, citizenship and claims to land, as a right, based on an indigenous Papuan identity. Demands for a covered market reserved only for indigenous market-women and their vocal resentment towards non-Papuan traders suggest that a market is as much about seeking dignity, respect and cultural sustainability as it is about preserving livelihoods. Like indigenous market women in Peru, the mama-mama are “negotiating far more than their economic survival, in the marketplace: they are negotiating the terms of their very lives and cultural identities.”[9]


[1] Sophie Crocker is an independent researcher. She has worked for international NGOs and lived in Jayapura from 2009-2010. She holds a MSc from the University of London where her dissertation research focused on the contested meaning and use of urban spaces with reference to indigenous market-women. 

[2] SKP, 2008. Mama Mama Marginalised in their own land: the story of Papuan women. Retrieved July 02 2011, from Witness the hub:

[3] ALDP (2011). Scrutinising the temporary market for indigenous market-women.

[4] Kommpap, 2011. ‘Tawaran bunga rendah untuk mama-mama pedagang asli Papua. Retrieved September 01 2011, from Kommpap blog:

[5]   Thomas, C. (2008). ‘We cannot move – mama-mamas face eviction’. Human Rights in the Pacific.

[6] Bromley, R. (2000). Street Vending and Public Policy: A Global Review. International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, 1-29.

  Seligmann, L. (2001). Women Traders in Cross-cultural Perspective: Mediating Identities, Marketing Wares. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

[7] Bromley, R., & Mackie, P. (2009). Displacement and the New Spaces for Informal Trade in the Latin American City Centre. Urban Studies, 46(7), 1485-1506.

[8] Suara Perempuan Papua (2006), Memberdayakan Orang Papua: Laporan Utama Tabloid Suara Perempuan Papua 2004-2005. Jakarta: Institut Studi Arus Informasi.

[9] Babb, F. (2001). Market/places as Gendered Spaces: Market/women's Studies over Two Decades. In L. Seligmann (Ed.), Women Traders in Cross-Cultural Perspectives (pp. 229-240). Stanford: Stanford University Press.