On January 26, 2001, an earthquake measuring 6.9 on the Richter Scale struck Bhuj in western Gujarat state in India, killing 13,805, injuring 166,836, destroying 339,000 buildings, and rendering up to a million homeless. Devastation was recorded almost 200 miles from the epicenter, even to modern construction in Ahmedabad, the state capital. More than $200 million of international aid poured in, and the government of Gujarat pledged $1 billion in reconstruction grants supplemented by loans from development banks.

Ten years later, the BBC “found the place transformed from a pile of rubble in a neglected backwater into an economic powerhouse.” Examples of this success include an airport at Bhuj, a seaport at Mundra, and factories in Anjar, much of the private investment attracted by tax relief and suspension of excise duties. On a more recent visit, however, I found a social investment in community organizing and skills training, leading to successes arguably more profound than those injections of external capital.

A visitor to the region may stay in the Shaam-e-Sarhad Village Resort in Hodka, an ecotourism hotel built, owned, and operated since 2005 by 13 of the surrounding villages affected by the earthquake. The hotel is designed as a series of individual round houses, or bhungas, clustered around common services, using traditional construction and decorative techniques. It is an astonishingly beautiful place with a level of food and service one would expect from any first-class hotel. Where does such excellence come from, especially in the aftermath of a disastrous earthquake, and in such a remote area?

The answer lies in a network of community organizations, some originating before the earthquake, others later. The organizational midwife of the project, helping the 13 villages establish their goals and guiding the setting up of management and operations, was the Kutch Mahila Vikas Sanghatan Collective. Comprising more than 12,000 women, it was founded in 1989 with the express intention of empowering members with skills development and overcoming divisions of religion and caste. The Hunnarshala Foundation, set up after the earthquake to help with reconstruction based on artisanal knowledge, complements this organizational capability. The foundation combines traditional techniques such as rammed earth construction and roof thatching with the benefit of engineering analysis to address seismic vulnerabilities and accommodate larger spans. Hunnarshala and the women’s collective share the conviction that design and building can and should be managed by “the people themselves.”

Hunnarshala has also provided trainers and enablers to local communities in other areas. After the earthquake and tsunami that hit Indonesia’s Banda Aceh in 2004, village women from Kutch, part of the Hunnarshala team, provided training in thatching techniques; they have now formed their own nonprofit company, the Mathachhaj partnership. Hunnarshala’s own technical training center in Bhuj, started in 2011, makes a point of including trainees of diverse backgrounds. Close by is the Khamir Crafts Resource Center, a training center for the propagation and development of traditional crafts, where the instructors are artisans from the surrounding communities and the trainees are eager to learn and set up in business.

What these projects and organizations exemplify is the enduring strength of indigenous skills that, with an approach enabling local organizing and decision making, can form the basis for social, economic, and physical reconstruction of communities after a disaster.