Tracing social capital: How stakeholder group interactions shape agricultural water quality restoration in the Florida Everglades

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Agricultural nonpoint source pollution remains a pressing environmental problem despite decades of policy and environmental initiatives. Cooperative local actions are a crucial element of effective multilevel governance solutions to such problems, but securing farmer participation for water quality protection remains challenging. Social capital—relations of trust, reciprocity, and shared social norms within and between key stakeholder groups—has been found to enable cooperation for environmentally desirable outcomes. However, the downsides of social capital remain under-examined in multilevel governance, where cooperation within one stakeholder group (bonding social capital) may undermine cooperation with other stakeholders (bridging social capital). Given this important gap, researchers need to examine how bonding and bridging social capital may be formed, maintained, or undermined through stakeholder interactions, and the corresponding environmental consequences. In this paper, we address these gaps through a case study of south Florida's sugar-producing region, whose drainage water flows south into the Florida Everglades. In contrast to persistent water quality impairment elsewhere, Everglades water quality has improved steadily over the past 20 years. These improvements have taken place under a complex set of governance arrangements that established a mandatory long-term numeric water quality target but which relies on shared compliance among farms. These dynamics encouraged interactions among three key groups of stakeholders—farmers, agricultural extension agents, and state regulators—to implement management changes. Drawing on semi-structured interviews, we find that bonding social capital among farmers encourages them to improve their management through a sense of shared responsibility, while also potentially limiting restoration by maintaining perceptions that the regulations are unfair. Bridging social capital helps to legitimize new management efforts, while court-mandated water quality targets incentivize farmers to draw on multiple forms of social capital. We also discuss the relevance of this case for governing agricultural nonpoint source pollution in similar settings elsewhere.

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Land Use Policy

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agri-environmental policy, bonding social capital, bridging social capital, farmer cooperation, multilevel governance, nature conservation