The University of Arizona

Testing the water, challenging the narratives of sustainable development: student volunteer research promoting public health in rural Panama in the shadow of an "eco-playground"

William L. Alexander


This article describes challenges faced by a team of interns and students working for a not-for-profit sister company of a private U.S.-based land development company planning to build a "sustainable city" in the Panamanian forest. Testing the contaminated water of a nearby village, the team demonstrated that residents have been living with water-related illness. Despite the indifference and conflicting aims of the parent company, potentially impactful social capital connections were made. The author reflects on these efforts within the critique of student "voluntourism." He also explores the role of social media in the production of narratives of sustainable development within the context of a poorly regulated land market.

Keywords: water access and water-related illness; sustainable development; medical anthropology; public health; tourism; voluntourism; social capital; social media narratives

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