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The Southeast Asian edible swiftlet nest trade: ecological, economic, and social impacts

Organiser:
Laurens Bakker
University of Amsterdam
l.g.h.bakker@uva.nl

Chair:
Laurens Bakker
University of Amsterdam
l.g.h.bakker@uva.nl

Discussant:
Craig Thorburn
Monash University
Craig.Thorburn@monash.edu

 

The past two decades have seen a rapid growth in the trade in the edible-nests of swiftlets (mainly Aerodramus spp., Apodidae: Collocaliini) attributable largely to rising demand from increasingly prosperous consumers in mainland China. At least four species of swiftlets that build edible-nests have entered into this trade, occuring in mainland and insular Southeast Asia. Throughout the region, (semi-)domestication of white-nest birds has taken place through the construction of special buildings aimed at attracting these swiftlets to enter and construct their precious nests inside, while feeding outside on the natural resource of aerial insects.
This panel brings together a multidisciplinary team of researchers who seek to come to terms with economic, genetic, environmental, and social impacts of the development of the nest trade and the phylogeny and sustainable management of the ‘house-farmed’ birds themselves. The transnational nature of production, trade and consumption constitutes the framework of our economic analyses. The ecological aspects come to the dispersal and hybridization of growing populations of house-farm birds on the available natural resources. , particularly the population of aerial insects, already threatened by other developments including the expanding substitution of native forest vegetation by agricultural tree crops, especially oil palm. Social impacts concern the regulation of trade in the nests as a food, rather than a natural medical material, and the attitude of the Peoples Republic of China in negotiating new and appropriate standards. Also important is swiftlet-human cohabitation through a consideration of urban legislation for swiftlet farming.

 

Paper 1: House-farmed Edible-nest Swiftlets of Indonesia and Malaysia: phylogenetics of a new domestication

Gathorne Earl of Cranbrook
Great Glemham Farms and Micropathology Ltd
lordcranbrook@greatglemhamfarms.co.uk

Edible bids’-nest is a valuable commodity exported from the producing region of Indonesia and Malaysia to the Chinese market. Originally reliant on nests harvested from natural cave sites, during the 20th century a new economy has grown from the management of white-nest swiftlets in modified or specially designed buildings, known as ‘house-farms’. The occupation of buildings was initiated independently by the two species of white-nest swiftlet at different times and at geographically separated locations, Aerodramus fuciphagus in Java around 1880 and A. inexpectatus in Penang, Malaysia some time before 1940. Subsequent management practices by house-farm owners have resulted in a large increase in numbers and expanded range of house-farmed swiftlets across the region, in circumstances amounting to a form of domestication. Among other birds, domestication has been accompanied by changes in heritable characters such as body shape or plumage colour, and in behaviour and physiology, attributable to adaptive modification of the genome. A first investigation of the genome of house-farmed white-nest swiftlets in a zone from North Sumatra through Peninsular Malaysia to Sarawak found an apparent mix of clades from the two putative ancestors. In other domesticated forms, these adaptive evolutionary genetic events occurred long ago and can only be hypothesised in retrospect. Now, uniquely, in the case of house-farmed swiftlets it is possible to investigate the underlying genetic processes of domestication, as it happens. A series of linked investigations is being carried out to grasp this opportunity before it passes.

 

Paper 2: Regulation, resistance and the residential area: Tracing the controversies over ‘swiftlet farming’ in Malaysian cities

Creighton Connolly
University of Manchester
creighton.connolly@manchester.ac.uk

This paper utilizes the lens of landscape studies developed in cultural geography to consider the political-economic and discursive elements contributing to the production of contemporary urban landscapes. In doing so, I utilize the unique case of ‘swiftlet farming’ in Malaysian cities, which involves the semi-domestication of edible-nest swiftlets (aerodramus fuciphagus) in buildings within urban areas in order to harvest their valuable nests. In particular, I examine the legal and regulatory measures which have been employed in an attempt to control the industry’s development, focusing on the case of George Town, and Malacca, which have been jointly listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 2008. This paper presents empirical data on the number of swiftlet farms in both cities from 2003-2011, and the challenges that the city governments have faced in removing the swiftlet farms from their respective heritage zones (inner cities). This case is significant because it represents an instance in which the politics surrounding urban policy making is shaped by the invocation of particular landscape interests. To be specific, the range of actors critical of swiftlet farming in urban/residential areas have been very successful – at least to some extent – in shaping the institutional decision making which eventually brought about the removal of swiftlet farms in George Town. However, at the time of research, there were still a number of swiftlet farms remaining in George Town, despite official government declarations suggesting otherwise. This chapter thus probes deeper into this case, by asking why swiftlet farms still proliferate in Malaysian cities like George Town, despite their illegality.

 

Paper 3: Market-driven changes in the birds’ nest industry in Indonesia and Malaysia

Craig Thorburn
Monash University
Craig.Thorburn@monash.edu

Edible bird’s nests, made from the hardened saliva of cave-nesting swiftlets (Apodidae, Collocaliini) have long been a sought-after delicacy among Chinese gourmands, and are among the most expensive animal products consumed by humans. The trade in birds’ nests dates back to the T’ang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.). Since the 1980s, a growing market among China’s burgeoning middle and upper classes has contributed to a rapid expansion in trade. The international trade in birds’ nests is currently estimated to exceed 210 tons per annum, worth upwards of US$1.6 billion.
Overharvesting from cave nesting sites has led to declines in some swiftlet populations and some local extinctions, however, during recent decades a new practice of raising the birds in purpose-built ‘nest houses’ has proliferated. Clusters of blocky, windowless three or four-story buildings designed to mimic cave conditions have sprung up in towns and cities across parts of Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines. Owners broadcast amplified swiftlet calls to attract the birds to nest in their structures, which, combined with the frenetic swooping of flocks of swiftlets departing or returning to their nest sites, is transforming the skyline and skyscape of towns and cities across the region.
House-farm swiftlets show behavioural changes that distinguish them from their wild progenators, including the propensity to seek buildings as nesting places, and lowered site-fidelity with enhanced dispersion. Avian ecologists propose that we are witnessing the latest episode of domestication, a co-evolutionary process that transforms physical environments and ecosystems, wild populations, and human societies.

 

Paper 4: Regulating bird’s nest domestication in urban Indonesia

Laurens Bakker
University of Amsterdam
l.g.h.bakker@uva.nl

Demand for edible bird’s nests has given rise to a construction boom of dedicated nest-houses in various areas of Indonesia. Oftentimes, these houses are constructed in urban areas for reasons of convenience and security. To the local population, however, they frequently pose a source of noise, smell and pollution. In reaction, many city councils have passed legislation aimed at regulating bird-nest farming in urban areas. Yet the implementation of this legislation is often found wanting.
In this paper I discuss three related issues in considering the regulation of bird’s nest domestication in urban areas. First are the pros and cons of an urban location for these activities as argued by stakeholders, second are the municipal bylaws and their contents, while the third point pertains to their effects and the reasons for such outcomes. As such, the paper departs from a discussion of the real and perceived (dis)advantages of urban nest-farming, moves on to an inventory of whether (and, if so, how) these issues are addressed by the bylaws, in order to come to a socio-political analysis of the ensuing situation in terms of stakeholders’ interests and relations. In doing so, the paper will engage the subject using political economy and urban anthropology perspectives.