Publication Date



Open access

Embargo Period


Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)


Marine Affairs and Policy (Marine)

Date of Defense


First Committee Member

Sarah Meltzoff

Second Committee Member

Maria Estevanez

Third Committee Member

Keene Haywood

Fourth Committee Member

Daniel DiResta


As indigenous communities across Latin America embrace modernization and undergo rapid development, safe and effective waste management becomes an important environmental and public health concern. Far too often, these marginalized groups are excluded from decision-making in the development processes and international conservation projects that address a host of population, health and environmental issues in their own communities. Waste Management projects and initiatives led by international organizations have not only excluded local interest groups from planning and administration, they disregard socio-cultural values and community needs in the process. This has led to far too many failed attempts at addressing pollution concerns and waste-management in developing countries and exacerbates the marginalization of these cultures. This case study assessed the potential of ethnography and political ecology as valuable tools in the waste management-planning framework. The application of these research methodologies was evaluated in Niadub, Panama, by using this approach to attempt to understand the social and cultural context of waste management in the small indigenous Guna community. Through in depth life & work histories and semi-structured interviews, an understanding of Guna cosmology, cultural norms and community values was developed. Discussion groups were organized with select interest groups to collect their perspectives on current waste-management strategies, perceived impacts of waste management practices and the potential for an improved waste management plan. What this research showed was a long-standing cultural understanding of garbage, its potential negative impacts and the need for proper management. Even as Niadub has modernized and the waste stream has become inundated with modern plastics, the social organization and cultural values have remained fundamentally the same. Although fragmented by foreign funding and exclusionary conservation projects, community interest groups remain concerned and motivated to improve the village’s waste management strategy. Waste management is a complicated affair that transcends the political, economic, social and environmental realms. Understanding the complexity of these issues and the interest groups involved necessitates a deeper level understanding of the socio-cultural context. In using the ethnographic and political ecology approach, this study was able to validate their application towards developing that in-depth appreciation.


political ecology; ethnography; waste management; development; indigenous