Castaways? A critical ethnography of garbage collectors in Kyawk Kyi Kone, Mandalay

Daw Htu Ra, Daw Htay Win, Daw Thandar Aye, Daw Dansi Moe

As urbanization increases, and the limits of urban spaces expand, new liminal spaces are created between new developments and rural areas. Such spaces are often subject neither to the formal jurisdiction found in urban centres, nor the established norms of rural communities. These ‘frontier’ spaces are frequently places of opportunity and risk; as such many of those living and working in these spaces live illegally, surviving on low-paid, often dangerous work which is considered unfit for either urban or rural spaces. The business of recycling waste material has emerged as a 21st century growth industry, promoted by both environmental activists and economists alike as part of the ‘Green economy’. Yet little attention has been paid to the human cost of recycling as marginal labour, often undertaken in risky and unrewarding conditions.

As Mandalay (Myanmar’s second largest city) has experienced rapid urbanization, the city’s effort to manage solid waste has been placed under greater pressure. The local government sought has to control the issue by the establishing two large scale sites for solid waste disposal on the outskirt of the city. One of these site is ‘Kyawk Kyi Kone’, situated adjacent of the graveyard in the northern part of the city. Here, generations of garbage collectors are working to reuse recyclable material. Using critical ethnography (in particular photo-ethnography), this paper will explore the social and economic life of people who collect waste for recycling, analysing the complex economic geography of the marginal labour utilised in this part of the ‘Green economy’.


Htu Ra is a lecturer at the Department of Anthropology, with research interests in the intersection between geography, livelihoods and the construction of human identity. Her research with Zurich University focused on kinships patterns in Kachin State, determinants of self-identity amongst Palaung, and on livelihoods and identity in rural Myanmar.


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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