McSweeney, Kendra and Oliver T. Coomes. 2011. “Climate-related disaster opens a window of opportunity for rural poor in northeastern Honduras.” PNAS 108 (13): 5203-5208.

reading notes

Our results challenge common ways of thinking about how traditional communities respond to climate-related shocks and offer process insights for research and policy meant to enhance the resilience of rural communities in the face of climate change. (5203)

Most striking was the bottom-up, almost “viral” way in which the new tenure system spread. No leader emerged to champion the new system, and no meetings were held to discuss it; even by 2002, some interviewees remained unaware of its existence. Instead, the process spread from neighbor to neighbor, through individual negotiation of parcel boundaries (see also refs. 36 and 40). By 2009, all households had reportedly adopted the system. (5205)

The emergence of a new, hybrid land-holding system in the wake of Hurricane Mitch was an endogenous outcome, requiring none of the external subsidization important for institutional change in other indigenous communities (17, 60). The innovation spread through a quiet process of cumulative decision making by individual households and appeared as an emergent property of the system – one that tapped into a reservoir of social memory (of a more egalitarian and livelihood-diverse past) and a support area of ecological memory (the community’s reserve of primary forest largely unaffected by the hurricane) (13, 24, 61, 62). The viral nature of the process allowed land-poor families to establish claims in the new system, minimizing potential distortion by community founders or other elites (cf. ref. 7). Thus here change did not proceed, as it did elsewhere in post-Mitch Honduras, in the heated context of “crisis politics” (28, 31, 59). Furthermore, it did not entail the transaction costs typically associated with land-related rule making (7, 60), and it did not rely on the specific forms of governance (e.g., explicit consensus building, participation) that are typically promoted by governance-development programs (63). (5206)

Nonetheless, the institutional change did reflect Krausirpi’s indigenous character, entirely consistent with the Tawahka’s diffuse forms of governance, in which new norms are built through individual action that is subsequently sanctioned (41). Long-term cultural commitment to place also fosters the trust, shared values, and mutual understanding (i.e., social capital) long known to be essential for institutional flexibility in the face of environmental change (9, 21, 63, 64). Also importantly, community members had the time and the institutional space to sort out and slowly enact a new, locally meaningful postdisaster order, because no external reconstruction initiatives specifically targeted local land ownership dynamics. This suggests that development priority should be given to ensuring a favorable context for the emergence of the informal networks and endogenous solutions most likely to turn a crisis into an opportunity (see also refs. 12, 22, and 24). (5206)

Local people’s institutional innovation in the wake of disaster exemplifies adaptive capacity, in that mem- bers demonstrated the ability to learn, to tap into social-ecological memory, and to make use of crisis, with clear ecological benefits (9, 13, 24, 25); adaptive capacity begets resilience (10). At the same time, this study joins other reported cases in which, paradoxically, sources of vulnerability at one point in time are sources of resilience in another (10). In Krausirpi, for example, the Tawahka’s traditionally diffuse governance structure was considered, before Mitch, to increase vulnerability by hindering development because collective action was seen to be constrained by the lack of desig- nated leaders within a decision making hierarchy (37, 38). After Mitch, however, this feature accommodated the bottom-up mode of institutional transformation – that is, it proved to be an important source of long-term resilience. (5206)

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