Trash and the action of re-use are two of more than fifty elements that anthropologist Oscar Lewis used to characterize and define the concept of the culture of poverty. In studying peasant groups in rural areas of Mexico as well as the slums of Mexico City, he observed that people kept broken or unwanted items in their homes to be used later (instead of discarding and replacing the item). For example, if an appliance broke, it was not thrown away immediately. It was repaired, its parts were used for another item or were sold, or it was used in a totally different way that benefited the family. Lewis also described how poor people used garbage to meet basic needs, such as food waste for feeding pigs and chickens. What was commonly understood as garbage, in reality, was still an input to satisfy needs. Only everything that did not have a well-defined second use was discarded.
Lewis helped us understand how the re-use and treatment of garbage by poor people perpetuates the culture of poverty (though he mentions that not all poor people reproduce this culture). In thinking about this culture (as well as the archeology of garbage), and after witnessing people’s daily life practices around garbage, I wondered how the people who live in the coastal towns of Yucatan, Mexico, used trash in their everyday lives. Being a native of Mexico City, I was impressed by what I learned.
First, the women collect all the containers they have on hand to use as flowerpots, and from there, obtain aromatic herbs for cooking or medicine. I also observed that Yucatan’s coastal people will re-use any materials they have to build separations between fields, or corrals for animals. They use empty plastic bottles such as bowls for a net, or a broken oar as a shotgun to complete a child’s costume for the Mexican Revolution’s anniversary.
The use that most surprised me was the filling of wetlands with trash. In the case of Sisal, a small coastal town flanked by the sea, the “El Palmar” Natural Reserve, a mangrove swamp, and private property for real estate development, there is no longer land where people can continue to build their homes. So they fill the wetland with stones, logs, sand, and their garbage to create more buildable space.
Although it is true that this practice brings negative consequences to the ecosystem and most likely to human health, we must not lose sight of the fact that it is the only way for the population of Sisal to obtain land to build houses or raise backyard livestock.
The wetland has always been filled in; it was a practice that the Mayans carried out (Andrews and Vail, 1990). What has changed is the accelerated demographic growth, the constriction of available housing space, and the landfill inputs. At the end of the Second World War, industries introduced plastics and other highly toxic materials like batteries and incandescent bulbs.
However, the empirical experience of those who inhabit the coasts and fill their wetlands (approximately 80 years) does not include the damage that these new inputs cause to human health and the environment. Many are unaware of the harmful effects. Those that are aware modify their behaviors when they can, but there is social pressure to continue filling the wetlands. For example, a man once told me there was no shrimp in the filled swamp adjacent to his house. So, on his own, he moved some of the litter to create a water hole for shrimp to live in. But those changes must be planned in cooperation with the neighbors, all of whom contribute to – and benefit from – the filling. If they do not work together, as he learned, the already filled land can be eroded and lost.
The balance between the choices people must make to fulfill basic needs and the consequences of those choices is very delicate. The biggest challenge here is to make people aware of the potential damages that the landfill can have, hand in hand with public policies that ensure decent housing according to coastal populations’ particular needs. Meanwhile, the culture of poverty continues.