A disaster anthropologist talks about Corcovada, Puerto Rico that has built social capital over decades to be there for each other.
Here are edited excerpts from our conversation with Anaís Delilah Roque Antonetty, Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology at The Ohio State University.
What does a disaster anthropologist do?
We try to understand how people and communities respond to and recover from disasters. I study social, cultural, and behavioral aspects of disasters and their impact on communities.
How do people and communities deal with disasters?
What I've learned during my research is that communities that can come together and think proactively about issues in their community, those communities tend to respond better to disasters. These communities really act as a unifying front, instead of an individualized perspective.
Where have you seen communities deal with disasters successfully?
My work has been mainly focused on Puerto Rico. Not only is Puerto Rico prone to different types of hazards but the community also has big social vulnerability because of other macro structural problems. I work with a community on the west side of the island – Corcovada. The community in Corcovada has been really good in not only organizing themselves around issues of disasters but also around other problems in their community like access to water, energy and health. Because the community is organized they have been able to take their issues to local governments like municipalities and engage with non-profits, local businesses and church to find resources to help solve problems in the community.
The coming together of the community has built trust amongst community members. Trust is critical for communities to rally during disasters and help each other to survive and recover. Trust also helps escalate the issues when the community cannot solver the issues themselves.
Why has the Corcovada community been so successful?
The community of Corcovada has a history of coming together over the last 30 years. They had to come together on multiple issues - like water problems since the community was not connected to the central water system. So they had to really think about how to do that for themselves.
When outside aid comes in after a disaster like Hurricane Maria, the community is already organized. Community leaders understand needs of different groups in the community so they coordinate and prioritize accordingly. That further builds on the trust and social capital.
Lastly, there is a lot of pride in the history of coming together to fight for the community. And people want to maintain those traditions and working actively on intergenerational knowledge transfer and continue to build on this legacy of social capital.
How does social capital manifest in the community in Corcovada ?
In addition to pursuing works for social good, the community has lots of activities that brings people together. They are famous for celebrating the Three Kings Day festival in early January every year for the last 30 years or so. The whole community participates in the festivities that include parades, music and dancing, music, and food. The community also comes together to keep the parks in the town clean. To support youngsters in the little baseball fields.
The community works actively to create physical environments where people come together. And talk to each other. About issues that focus on improving their neighborhoods and better future for the new generation. The community is very purposeful and proactive thinking about reciprocity and building networks with local government and other centers of power.
What are the risks? Can social capital go down?
Great question. So yes, social capital can go down. In our research in Corcovada we see anecdotal data that repeated disasters like hurricanes Maria and Irma in 2017, followed by landslides, earthquakes in 2020, pandemic from 2020 to 2022 and hurricane Fiona in 2022 have strained the community to have the level of engagement needed to sustain social capital.
Especially with something like the COVID19 pandemic, where the isolation mandates did not allow people in the community to get together for activities. Or allow community leaders to connect with institutions. Add to that widespread impact of the pandemic that forced many communities in Puerto Rico requesting resources from same sources. The lack of opportunity from multiple disasters is leading to many younger people leaving the town. This further brings down the social capital. Luckily people are now beginning to get back together and thinking collectively for the whole community. I am hopeful.