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Social capital and resilience to drought among smallholding farmers in Sri Lanka

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Pressure of freshwater resources has intensified in recent decades, stressing agricultural communities worldwide. Research is needed to advance our understanding of the factors that support resilience. Past research suggests that social capital positively predicts health and well-being; yet, we know surprisingly little about the relationship between social capital and resilience to environmental stress. Some scholars have cautioned that tight-knit social relationships can also constrain behavior and undermine flexibility, which could undermine adaptive responses to environmental stress. In this analysis, we use survey data from 225 smallholding rice farmers in Sri Lanka to examine the relationship between individual-level measures of cognitive and structural social capital measured before a drought-affected season, and livelihood outcomes (rice yields and income loss) measured after the season. We also examined if membership in less powerful groups (landless, female, and poor farmers) moderated the relationship between social capital and livelihood outcomes. Higher levels of perceived social cohesion (a measure of cognitive social capital) were associated with poorer yields for both female and landless farmers; yet, the yields of male and landowning farmers were unrelated to perceived social cohesion. Likewise, landless farmers with higher levels of community participation (a form of structural social capital) experienced a marginally higher rate of lost income due to the drought. These data suggest that the relationship between social capital and resilience operates differently for different members of the community. Importantly, some community members may face a difficult tradeoff between agricultural productivity and maintaining social relationships.

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  1. We recognize that there are other features of social capital that ought to be considered. For example, social capital may consist of formal and informal social relationships, may achieve the functions of bridging and bonding, or may be inward vs. outward looking. A complete discussion of these important facets of social capital is beyond the scope of this manuscript. For more background, we recommend other more comprehensive reviews of this topic (Coleman 1990; Putnam 1995; Portes 1998; Easterly et al. 2006; Ostrom and Ahn 2008).

  2. The SEADS is a component of a larger project concerned with hydroclimatic variability in Sri Lanka and the factors that support resilience of Dry Zone rice farmers (NSF-EAR-1204685; Gunda et al. 2015; Burchfield and Gilligan 2016a, 2016b; Perrone and Hornberger 2016; Stone and Hornberger 2016).

  3. Based on historical data covering a period from 1901 to 2016 produced by the Climate Research Unit of East Anglia and curated by the World Bank (2018).


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Correspondence to Amanda R. Carrico.

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Carrico, A.R., Truelove, H.B. & Williams, N.E. Social capital and resilience to drought among smallholding farmers in Sri Lanka. Climatic Change 155, 195–213 (2019).

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