Natural Disasters and Cultural Change

By Robin Torrence; John Grattan | Go to book overview

16

What makes a disaster? A long-term view of volcanic eruptions and human responses in Papua New Guinea

ROBIN TORRENCE


VULNERABLE OR RESILIENT?

Modern scholars of natural hazards predict that in developed countries with complex, state-level social organisations, disasters can be mitigated through aid programmes, redistribution of resources, etc., whereas egalitarian societies with smaller social networks have a wide range of responses, but are more likely to fail to adapt and will abandon their homeland (e.g. Chester, 1993: table 8.4). Anthropologists have often painted quite a different picture in which traditional societies are and have been very resilient and adaptable in the face of extreme climatic events. In their view modernisation has often undermined capable traditional means for coping with hazards. They therefore argue that the vulnerability of indigenous groups witnessed in recent disasters is a result of their marginalisation through globalisation and externally forced changes (e.g. Oliver-Smith, 1996:312-14).

A comparison by Sheets et al. (1991; cf. Sheets and McKee, 1994) of the prehistory of the Arenal Valley in Costa Rica with that of El Salvador and Panama substantiates the wider anthropological view that simple societies are quite resilient or even adapted to environmental hazards. Despite the occurrence of ten volcanic eruptions in Costa Rica during a period of 4,000 years, the archaeologists have reconstructed a quite remarkable picture of cultural stability. In contrast, they concluded that a major eruption of Ilopango volcano in El Salvador had disastrous consequences for Mayan civilisation and the Baru volcano severely undermined the prehistoric Bariles chiefdom society in Panama. According to Sheets et al. (1991:446), simpler societies ‘appear to be more resilient in the aftermath of explosive eruptions’ than more complex societies because the latter are dependent on a built environment and economies characterised by ‘occupational specialisation, redistribution, and long distance trade routes’. These conclusions are limited, however, because the authors do not adequately account for differences in the severity of the events they have compared.

One of the problems with trying to develop a general understanding of the

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