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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Rural Responses to Climatic Variability and Institutional Change in Central Mexico


Using ethnographic data collected in three agricultural communities in the states of Tlaxcala and Puebla, this paper explores the intersection of institutional change and climatic uncertainty in the production process and livelihood decisions of small-scale farm households. The research focuses on household response to the neoliberal reforms in Mexico’s agricultural sector of the 1990s and to the series of climatic events that were experienced in central Mexico in 1997, 1998 and 1999. These latter events have been associated with an observed increase in the occurrence of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation phenomenon. The experience of smallholder farmers with these two parallel processes of exogenous change serves as a rough analogue of the more abstract processes of economic globalization and climatic change. The paper argues that ultimately a farm household’s vulnerability to climatic changes will depend on the series of livelihood decisions the household takes, from season to season, over the course of decades. Those decisions, in turn, are not in any way a simple product of climatic factors, but rather are the result of what Kelly and Adger have called “the architecture of entitlements, the social, economic and institutional factors that influence levels of vulnerability within a community or nation and promote or constrain options for adaptation” (Kelly and Adger 2000: 326). Documenting adaptation in practice to concrete events allows us to see the difficult competition between non-climatic and climatic risks in decision-making and the important role of institutions in structuring adaptation capacity.

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