, Volume 32, Issue 4, pp 487-507

Chronicle of a Foreseeable Tragedy: Birds' Nests Management in the Niah Caves (Sarawak)

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Abstract

The number of birds' nests harvested in the Niah cave today is only a fraction of what it used to be. This article focuses on the socioeconomic causes of the decline. It argues that the present situation is not directly linked to the tragedy of the commons, since the ownership of cave and nests is private. The tragic aspect is, rather, linked to an attitude of free riding which was threatening the private system of ownership in the 1980s, and which forced Penan owners to lease their caves to the former “free riders” (thereby diluting management responsibility), and to harvest nests as soon as possible (before the birds can lay eggs and reproduce). It is therefore the tragedy of a management system whose rules, intended to avoid open access and free riding, lead to unsustainable behavior. Since the birds cannot be privatized, it is also the tragedy of a system in which actors are unable to reach a consensus on how to manage sustainably a de facto common property resource.