Historical memory: an opportunity to build resilience

Contributor: Pablo Fernandez S. and Carolina Alvarez-Vergnani

For centuries human migration has been used as an adaptation strategy. Moving from one place to another, often for environmental reasons, has allowed populations to thrive in the face of resource depletion and environmental change. Migration has allowed communities to escape environmental degradation, that they themselves have sometimes played a part in causing. In one sense, migration has been used as an alternative to adapting to environmental changes in situ. All around the world humans have responded to climate variability by intensifying their interactions with the environment, taking steps that very often result in environmental degradation and harming long-term human development.

In modern civilisations, despite large-scale migration, many communities retain strong ties to a specific geography. This feeling of belonging makes a sense of ‘place’ an integral part of people’s cultural identity. These qualities are not intangible, they are contained within the teachings, politics and cultural references held within societies and they frequently interact, creating commonly held knowledge, which is subsequently converted into collective memory. This kind of collective knowledge, built over time, is an invaluable resource, which can be used to overcome political and technical challenges on a host of issues such as land use, agriculture, adaptation to natural changes including climate change.

Unfortunately, in recent years many communities have become poor stewards of their cultural resources. Historical memory has been progressively eroded. In Costa Rica, for example, urban planning and development, generally responds to needs that rarely take account of the specific historical knowledge. This situation represents a gap in long-term planning for sustainable development. As a result, this type of development strategy has led to millions in economic losses by not considering infrastructure resilience measures against meteorological events, human migration events, changes in agricultural production systems, climate change and water resources availability, among other factors.

So, is it possible to use historical memory to find resilient solutions for adaptation to climate change? How can past interactions between a community and its environment serve as technical references to prevent human disaster and economic losses facing environmental variability?

In those communities with a deep-rooted identity, the capacity of its people to adapt to changes in their environment is higher, as are levels of resilience. Historical memory chronicles not only the instances of shock that harm the community, such as natural disasters but also the methods used to respond to them and recover. Why do not use this information to elaborate proactive plans that learn the lessons of the past?

The case of Costa Rica is illuminatory. Due to its heterogeneous relief (from 0-3800 m) and geographical location (located between 8 and 10 degrees north of the Equator), its territory has a wide variety of local climates. The country’s dry regions receive as little as 1200 mm of precipitation per year, while its wetlands can exceed 7000 mm of rainfall. Such conditions have particular impact on the spatial distribution density of population, their mobility and their development. Despite the fact that there are many areas that have favourable conditions for settlement, almost 55 % of its population of four and a half million people reside in the Central Valley, the main metropolitan area in the country. This area, including the country’s capital San Jose and surrounding areas, has a high population density and correspondingly severe environmental pressures.

As a result of this urban concentration, settlements have proliferated uncontrollably in many places. Each municipality has managed this situation according to their own land use plans, many of them out-dated or even non-existent. This has led to expanding slums. Precarious buildings proliferate in under-served areas and large-scale real estate developments in have been allowed to spring up in environmentally sensitive areas. Moreover, migration from rural areas to urban regions has aggravated the problems of poor land management and territorial planning.

In recent years, several large-scale natural events have struck the country. In late 2010, twenty-three people were killed and about three thousand were injured as a result of a landslide in San Antonio de Escazu in the Central Valley of Costa Rica. Many communities were cut off for several days and economic losses from road damage, lack of water and electricity blackouts were substantial. Unfortunately, the land use master plans of affected municipalities did not take into account the opinions of local residents or scientific studies warning of a serious risk of landslides and flooding given a few years ago. The planning, prevention and adaptations designed to protect the lives and housing of the settlers were insufficient.

However, what would happen if both scientific studies and local community knowledge were considered from the beginning of the planning process? The truth is potential threats related to climate change and their impacts on social and economic systems also present opportunities. Resilience needs to be built from the bottom up, by promoting the full participation of communities in these policies, engaging them to learn more about these matters. The studies in the region are clear: even under the most positive climate change scenarios, many adaptation actions should be implemented in the short and medium term to prevent severe damage from climate change.

In 2013, twenty-two Costa Rican municipalities joined the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction’s (UNISDR) “Making Cities Resilient” programme. As part of the programme, the country is developing action plans to adapt effectively to climate-related threats. Financial concerns remain the most important consideration for decision-makers. In the 8 years from 2005 – 2013, the country has invested more than US$ 1 billion in climate change mitigation and reconstruction programs related to natural disasters.

Efforts have been focused mainly on mitigation through reducing greenhouse gas emissions, rather than adaptation. Currently, decision-makers are not considering the issues of climate change, environment, the economy and development holistically. They suggest budget cuts for environmental programmes so that money can be put into infrastructure, without considering that the cuts will undermine their investment when the next natural disaster occurs. Climate change and development need to be considered as inextricably interconnected, and solutions must converge with communities’ interests, concerns and needs.

The question to be resolved in Costa Rica and many other places around the world with similar scenarios is: how can we create effective, resilient adaptation actions without considering the historical memory of each place? Rescuing local historical knowledge could be decisive in the fight against natural hazards and climate change. Local knowledge is a ready resource that can help could be used to help design climate resilient policies that are responsive to place. But first, we need to listen.


Pablo Fernández, S. Biologist, Development practices consultant. Pablo is experienced working in environmental education, CSR and projects development, with a large variety of non-governmental and private organizations in several countries. As an international consultant, climate change is one of his top concerns. He teaches courses on environmental sensibilization, climate change and development practices. 

Find him on Twitter: @pabfernan / Or online: practicasdeldesarrollo.blogspot.com

Carolina Alvarez-Vergnani is a biologist and Climate Change specialist, working in climate adaptation, energy efficiency and environmental impact assessment projects. In the past years, she has worked with several public, private a non-profit Costa Rican organizations. Carolina is also a keynote speaker on environmental issues and she teaches a course in Climate Change at the University of Costa Rica.

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