Skip to main content

"We are fine here": Ngäbe Perspectives on Urban Living, Poverty, and Well-being in Bocas del Toro, Panama

Visser, Diana Boana (2021) "We are fine here": Ngäbe Perspectives on Urban Living, Poverty, and Well-being in Bocas del Toro, Panama. Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) thesis, University of Kent,. (doi:10.22024/UniKent/01.02.87077) (KAR id:87077)

Language: English

Download (7MB) Preview
[thumbnail of 139PhD_Dissertation_-_D.B._Visser.pdf]
This file may not be suitable for users of assistive technology.
Request an accessible format
Official URL


This dissertation explores urban indigenous notions of poverty and living well among Ngäbe residents of Bocas del Toro, Panama. I examine how these notions relate to Ngäbe urban living conditions and their endeavours to live well in the urban environment. Based on 16 months of ethnographic research among indigenous families in the mangrove neighbourhood of La Solución, I demonstrate that Ngäbe ideals of how to live well are based on indigenous notions of generosity, cooperation, hard work, and autonomy. The act of cultivating vegetables, in particular, embodies the values that underpin Ngäbe visions of the proper way to live and of what constitutes a good life. In the urban environment where cultivation is not possible, Ngäbe individuals express the ideals imbued in cultivation practices by emphasising household autonomy, by cooperating and sharing with neighbours, and by nostalgically invoking the finca (farmland) and the way of life it allows.

My research contributes to the anthropology of indigenous urbanisation by analysing how urban Ngäbe residents' notions of poverty and living well shape and are shaped by their experiences and inter-ethnic encounters in the urban environment. As I demonstrate in this thesis, hierarchical inter-ethnic relations and discriminatory political approaches engender experiences of precarity, discrimination, and marginalisation among urban Ngäbe residents. These experiences challenge Ngäbe residents in their abilities to live well. Yet, while urban Ngäbe households are commonly reported to live in conditions of poverty, Ngäbe individuals themselves often reject the idea that this is the case. Although urban Ngäbe residents often lament about the urban inconveniences and challenges they face, they largely focus on their personal responsibility and endeavours to live well within their given circumstances. My ethnographic narrative offers an engagement with indigenous Ngäbe voices and perspectives that is often missing from government assessments of urban indigenous living conditions. I provide an account that prioritises local experiences and the political and social processes that structure local livelihoods. This perspective from the grassroots illustrates how conditions and understandings of poverty are socially and politically generated. In this respect, my dissertation contributes to key debates in development and post-development theory. I argue that an externally imposed identification of Ngäbe as poor disregards indigenous perspectives and masks the unequal power structures and political approaches that create their adverse conditions.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctor of Philosophy (PhD))
Thesis advisor: Theodossopoulos, Dimitrios
Thesis advisor: Peluso, Daniela
DOI/Identification number: 10.22024/UniKent/01.02.87077
Uncontrolled keywords: Social anthropology, Panama, Indigenous urbanisation, poverty, Well-being
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Human and Social Sciences > School of Anthropology and Conservation
SWORD Depositor: System Moodle
Depositing User: System Moodle
Date Deposited: 12 Mar 2021 13:10 UTC
Last Modified: 19 May 2021 15:36 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)
  • Depositors only (login required):