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Can Properties of Labor-Exchange Networks Explain the Resilience of Swidden Agriculture?

Sean S. Downey, Stanford University

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Abstract

Despite the fact that swidden agriculture has been the subject of decades of research, questions remain about the extent to which it is constrained by demographic growth and if it can adapt to environmental limits. Here, social network analysis is used to analyze farmer labor-exchange networks within a chronosequence of five Q’eqchi’ Maya villages where swidden agriculture is used. Results suggest that changes in land-use patterns, network structure, reciprocity rates, and levels of network hierarchy may increase the resilience of these villages to changes in the forest’s agricultural productivity caused by ongoing agricultural activity. I analyze the suitability of subsistence- versus market-oriented agricultural labor for reciprocal labor exchange and develop a novel interpretation of labor reciprocity that highlights how unreciprocated exchanges, when they occur within the context of a network, may limit overexploitation of the forest. The variability observed in labor-exchange network structure across villages suggests that Q’eqchi’ swidden can maintain its identity under changing conditions. This important characteristic of resilient systems is explored by analyzing a village case study where a serious demographic exodus dramatically impacted their labor network. The resulting picture of Q’eqchi’ swidden agriculture is one of resilience rather than homeostasis. Reorganization of labor-exchange networks helps to maintain a village’s cohesion, and ultimately this limits pioneer settlements and may slow overall rates of deforestation.

Key words

adaptive cycle; common-property resource management; labor exchange; Maya; panarchy; Q’eqchi’ resilience; social network analysis; swidden
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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087