Barcelona faces the ‘top manta’ challenge

It’s 7:30 a.m. in Barcelona, and popular tourist spot Passeig Joan Borbó is empty for the moment. A man carrying an armful of bags, shirts and shoes lays out a blanket on the floor and sets up his display. About 600 more sellers will find a spot for their blanket before the day begins. This street is a hot spot for “top manta,” or counterfeit trade, and by all accounts it is out of control. Though this is a common sight in tourist destinations all around the world, Barcelona has been called the paradise of “top manta,” to the extent that foreigners who make a living by selling counterfeit products are moving to the Spanish city. Most of them come from sub-Saharan countries in Africa such as Senegal, Nigeria, Cameroon or Ghana.

These practices have been causing problems. Local businesses around the area are experiencing strong economic losses, and neighbors complain that it is an invasion of public space and changes the physical appearance of some streets.

However, most of the “top manta” sellers are young people who traveled through much of the African continent in very harsh conditions in search of a better life. They defend themselves by saying that they want to work, and for now, this is their only option. After a few were arrested and put in jail this year, most sellers are trying to stay out of trouble. To avoid legal issues, most are willing to pay fees that would allow them to sell their products, and many would also agree to sell less controversial products. They just want to be able to make a living.

Passeig Joan Borbo in mid-July. Credit: Ferran Sendra/El Periodico Barcelona

Passeig Joan Borbo in mid-July. Credit: Ferran Sendra/El Periodico Barcelona

The government’s main priority is to protect local commerce. The mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, has insisted that she is in favor of approaching this with integrative and social solutions instead of with an offensive police intervention. First of all, the local police had orders to arrive early to the “top manta” spots to stop them from setting up. They also plan to carry out massive campaigns to ensure that locals and tourists alike understand that “top manta” is illegal and may result in fines for buyers. Colau also wants to provide the “top manta” sellers with jobs that are of social and public interest to enhance the quality of life in the city. She did a trial run for this plan with 16 people and is planning on giving construction jobs to 40 more people. Additionally, Colau wants to find the main distribution network of the illegal counterfeit products, attacking the problem at its root. Finally, her administration plans to set up a skate park in one of the main “top manta” areas, preventing sellers from spreading out their blankets.

Still, these measures come without complications and complaints. Local business owners complain that police action is not enough to stop this issue, because sellers can just switch their location. The local government states that there simply aren’t enough agents to keep 800 sellers away, especially if they are spread out in different areas. Colau’s plan to give jobs to sellers has also proven to be controversial, as she has 40 jobs to be filled and there are about 800 people who need to be covered. Finally, incorporating a skate park has been seen as an ineffective measure because it doesn’t give the people their land and peace, it just replaces “top manta” people with skateboarders.

Some political parties have criticized these measures and are coming up with alternatives. The Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) party, a Catalan left wing party, denounced how the government has been trying to show a “better looking” Barcelona to tourists instead of showing the tough situation that the “top manta” people live, forcing them to make a living out of this. To look for solutions, they got in contact with the “top manta” organization to see if they could come up with something. Together they thought they could start working in sectors that they occupied in their home country, like fishing and textile. This same party mentioned that some people say that evicting them from the streets would be the best option, but the question of how the sellers would survive remains unanswered.

It’s a very complex topic with a lot of discontent people. Citizens complain about that the sellers are invading a public space and local business owners believe that it is unfair for them to pay licenses and taxes while the “top manta” people do not. The police are not able to act on this issue, even though they know their job is to apply the law, and the government is trying to give everyone equal attention. Though all these groups want to find a solution to the “top manta” problem, the sellers are an unprotected group of people who are trying to have a decent life. The arguments from all sides are defensible, making it that much more difficult to reach a solution. Some of the groups are going to have to sacrifice their values in order to put forward an agreement. In the end, it seems to be a battle between law and human rights, and it’s difficult to foresee a winner.

Cover credit: Sergio Algeri/GYV