Cohesion, diversity and leadership - do they determine adaptive capacity?

Photo: James Oatway/Panos/ActionAid

What makes communities adaptable or resilient? Are some communities more able to cope with calamities than others? If so what are the social determinants of resilience? How do population size and social diversity and local leadership affect adaptive capacity of communities experiencing climate change?

These are the very questions that I’m trying to answer as I begin analysing the data collected from our two study communities in Madang, PNG.

The Derin community, located on the floodplains of the Gogol Valley has a population of 500 people living in small hamlets based on familial ties.  For example, all of the men (i.e. grandfather, father, brothers, etc) from the same family will live together in one hamlet with their wives and children. So each hamlet itself was a socially cohesive unit consisting of extended family members across three or four generations.  Everyday life is focused on social interactions within the hamlet as well as between hamlets.  The latter interaction occurs informally or formally – conversations are simply struck as people pass other hamlets on their way to their food gardens or through more organised encounters at the market day or at church on Sundays.  Through these social interactions a sense of belonging, a sense of cohesiveness are defined and redefined, and for an outsider like me there was a definite feeling of connectedness in Derin.

The importance of community cohesion was evident when I asked people in Derin about what they thought they could do to cope with the climatic changes they were experiencing.  A large majority of people said they would like to see the community come together to discuss what was happening and develop a community-wide solution. I also spoke to various community leaders, including the leader of the women’s group and they also stated that climate change was an issue concerning everyone in the community and hence responses would need to come from the community as a whole.

Now compare Derin to our second study community of Siar.  This coastal community of 4,000 people is urbanised and land locked between two government plantations.  Despite the land constraints, Siar’s population is growing rapidly, hosting a high number of migrants from neighbouring provinces who come to Madang in search for better social and economic opportunities.  Unlike Derin, the community of Siar is heterogeneous (a social mix of people with non-familial ties), urbanised and ‘socially tense’.

It was clear from speaking to people in Siar that there was an undercurrent of mistrust and tension within the community.  Some of the women taking part in our focus group discussions told stories of people stealing food from other people’s gardens and of drinking problems among young men in the community.  Lack of leadership was also raised as a concern - women felt that there were no effective leaders in the community to mobilise people and act on the issues that the community was facing.

When asked about how the community could cope with the rising sea levels, coastal erosion and other climate change impacts, the majority of people in Siar identified outside solutions rather than focusing on solutions inside the community.  Financial assistance from NGOs was commonly mentioned as a solution – it was as if people had lost confidence in the ability and the capacity of their own community to come up with its own solutions.

So this brings me back to the questions I started with...to what extent do local leadership, community cohesion and social dynamics play in influencing adaptive capacity of communities?

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