The Tiwi People: Making Sustainable Decisions

Over the years the human race has managed to exploit natural resources all around the world.  Much of this destruction has been caused by the way people make decisions.  In most societies, when people make decisions concerning the environment there is a great emphasis on optimization.  Managers of resources tend to think in terms of yield, revenue, and other quantitative measures.  Using these measures, managers of resources tend to select the option that will probably lead to the greatest value.  The Tiwi people however, do not concern themselves with “maximization approaches”.  They have no concept of numbers or language for probability, so they rely on different criteria to make decisions.


The Tiwi people inhabit islands of Northern Australia.  They have managed their resources for the last 6000-8000 years.  These people were isolated until the 17th century, but they have managed to sustain themselves.  Today, there are about 2000 Tiwi people.  In order to learn more about the Tiwi decision-making processes, researchers examined 4 types of sources. Scientific literature published about the Tiwi, documented decisions concerning the environment over the last 35 years, 26 years of interaction with resource managers, and records of resource management in Tiwi literature presented patterns in their choices.  After a qualitative assessment of the data, researchers were able to devise an informal model of Tiwi decision-making.

Part of the Tiwi culture involves choosing a resource manager for each generation (referred to as a “Big Man”).  The Big Man is responsible for maintaining resources and making environmental decisions.  The position of Big Man is achieved through training and tests; it cannot simply be inherited.  The status of resource manager is very prestigious, and if the Big Man does a good job, he enhances his reputation and is allowed to have more wives.  The Big Man has great responsibilities.  The Tiwi people are required to ask his permission before using any of the natural resources.  His decisions are respected and generally carried out, and it is his responsibility to monitor all of the natural resources.  Failure to abide by the manager’s decisions results in a lower social status.  Resource managers of the Tiwi have a greater incentive to conserve the environment than leaders of other groups around the world.

Although the Tiwi people respect the decisions of the Big Man, they face pressures from the outside world to change policies.  For example, barramundi stocks have decreased over the last 50 years as a result of foreigners’ non-compliance with Tiwi policies.   While the qualitative processes of the Tiwi work for their small population size, it is not compatible with the regulations of the Northern Territory Government of Australia (these use quantitative assessments).

The Tiwi people have different goals from most other people in the world.  They generally do not use fishhooks, axes, or guns to increase harvesting efficiency because they do not have the tools to also increase the harvesting rate.  Their primary goals are to “satisfy essential demands and to enhance the prestige and influence of the land manager” (766).

Data suggests that the Tiwi use the “Theory of Bounded Rationality” to make decisions.   This theory states, “when people make decisions, they are limited by available information, the cognitive limitations of their minds, and the limited time they have to make a decision.  This theory recognizes these limitations and suggests that people often make decisions to satisfy basic aspirations rather than optimize the expected value of the outcomes” (761).  This theory differs greatly from the optimization approach seen in many other societies.  The Tiwi also connect social status to environmental decisions, and this is another key factor in their conservation success.  Although most people in the world are not willing to give up their standard of living, we can look to the Tiwi as an example of how to make decisions concerning the environment.

Source Article:

Hicks, J., Burgman, M., Marewski, J., Fidler, F,. Gigerenzer, G.  Decision Making in a Human Population Living Sustainably.  Conservation Biology Vol. 26 Issue 5, pp. 760-766

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This entry was posted in Conservation Biology Posts, Conservation Blogs 2012-2013. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Tiwi People: Making Sustainable Decisions

  1. bimawear says:

    Please remove our copyrighted image. The author has not requested approval to use this Bima Wear owned image.


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