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Social networks and environmental management at multiple levels: soil conservation in Sumatra

Petr Matous, University of Tokyo; University of Sydney


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Many agrarian communities in developing countries suffer from insufficient productivity and use farming practices that deteriorate the environment both locally and globally. Research suggests that social networks play a role in environmental management, different studies emphasize different aspects of network structures, and the implications of the scales at which networks operate are not explicitly discussed. Here, I ask what types of social structures in farmer networks are conducive to environmental protection and agricultural productivity enhancement, and I show that the answer depends on the scale of the investigation. Using original data representing 16 farmer groups comprising 315 households and 1575 information-sharing links, I analyzed the structure of farmers’ social connections in relation to their soil conservation and productivity-enhancing practices, assessed through their usage of organic and chemical fertilizers. Furthermore, I conducted qualitative interviews with 25 stakeholders from different levels of the agricultural system to gain additional insights into the drivers of farmers’ behaviors. The quantitative analysis distinguishes the effects of intra- and extra-group links and reciprocity at the household and group levels. Fixed-effects logistic regression was applied at the household level to examine farmers’ soil management practices. At the collective level, I used linear regression to estimate the proportion of adopters for each soil management practice. A lack of education and a lack of extra-group links are associated with unproductive practices, and a lack of reciprocity is associated with a lack of conservation efforts at both the household and collective levels. Dense intra-group links have opposite effects at the two levels. Whereas links within the farmer groups are associated with unproductive soil management by households, these links are associated with productivity maximization at the collective level. Qualitative interviews showed that farmers who opt for organic fertilizers do so partially because of pressure from global traders, mediated through external links and amplified by dense and reciprocal relations within their groups. The results highlight the need for environmental management policies to be based on research at multiple scales and demonstrate that, counter-intuitively, increasing global economic interconnectivity may, in some cases, stimulate the adoption of conservation practices via local social networks.

Key words

community-based management; cross-level interactions; fertilizers; social networks; soil management

Copyright © 2015 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article  is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.  You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087