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Social learning as an adaptive measure to prepare for climate change impacts on water provision in Peru

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This article examines the conditions under which social learning occurs and leads to adaptive measures through two empirical examples of Peruvian cities that invested in watershed protection for their urban water supplies. Social learning is an increasingly popular approach aimed at achieving socio-ecological resiliency through multi-stakeholder collaborative governance processes. Social learning is a convergence in knowledge that occurs through dialog and deliberation. Yet, assumptions that social learning will necessarily lead to more environmentally sustainable and resilient practices may be overly optimistic, especially as they rarely consider the political and organizational dimensions of decision making. This study analyzes two seemingly similar case studies of multi-stakeholder water management in Peru that resulted in watershed protection programs—a novelty in Peru that will help ensure future water supplies. Despite similar programs adopted, though, the social interactions were markedly different. Social learning occurred in Moyobamba, where the multi-stakeholder platform was characterized by trust, flexibility, and sustainability. In Cusco, however, stakeholders reached an agreement on projects for watershed protection, but the process exhibited little evidence of social learning, trust, or flexibility. In this article, I use process tracing to analyze if and how social learning occurred in each case. Then, I identify factors that contributed to social learning, including diverse participation, open communication, multiple sources of knowledge, extended engagement, unbiased facilitation, and an opportunity to influence outcomes.

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  1. While this builds off of Pahl-Wostl’s process model of social learning, it departs from her (and others’) three-level model where social learning occurs at the micro, meso, and macro levels. In line with Reed et al. (2010) critique of the difficulty of discerning learning, this research focuses only on the micro-level, although recognizes that other levels of learning can occur.

  2. To elaborate in greater depth on the other attributes: Sustained engagement over time can affect whether participants have time to form relationships and build trust. Open communication can help affect whether actors actually do open up and share their perspectives. Multiple sources of knowledge can contribute new types of information or new interpretations when combined, and notably also depends on the credibility, legitimacy, and salience of information. Facilitation can affect the tone and conduct of meetings, such as whether voices get heard or different types of knowledge discussed. Scholars also noted that opportunities to influence the outcome can help foster and sustain social learning, as it justifies time and effort to engage.

  3. Due to their many similarities with regard to adopting a watershed protection program, they were selected as “most similar” case studies, yet they differ in terms of social relations (Gerring 2006). Case study boundaries are the geographic context of each MSP’s jurisdiction and from 1995 to 2016, which encompasses the period within which each was developed.

  4. Recognizing there are different types of power relations (see Barnett and Duvall 2005), here, I focus on unequal capabilities and resources.

  5. Following Brummel (2010), “shared” was identified when multiple participants had similar knowledge, exhibited a similar perspective, or noted shared knowledge/perspectives across actors, and when these findings were verified across multiple interviewees.

  6. Translated from Spanish transcript.

  7. Among interviewees, there was wide respect for this tiered structure: making decisions with a large group of stakeholders is difficult and people do not have time to go to too many meetings, so many appreciate when a smaller group rolled up their sleeves, developed recommendations, and then presented them to the larger group for discussion and approval.


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This work was supported by the American University Graduate Research Fellowship, American University School of International Service Summer Research Awards, and Tinker Field Research Grant. Thanks to interview participants and to anonymous reviewers.

The interview protocol for human subjects research was reviewed and approved by American University’s review board.

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Correspondence to Abby Lindsay.

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Lindsay, A. Social learning as an adaptive measure to prepare for climate change impacts on water provision in Peru. J Environ Stud Sci 8, 477–487 (2018).

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