The Inuit Want To Hunt Seals Again...And Heal Their Wounded CultureLucy Jones
Just the mention of Greenpeace makes Arquato Mattiwise spit onto the permafrost parking lot. Like the other Inuits of Illulissat, a Greenlandic settlement situated north of the polar circle, the 52-year-old Mattiwise used to be a hunter. He would traverse this ice-capped landmass on dog sled for days at a time, searching for seal and reindeer. Today he makes a living taking cruise- ship passengers in a battered taxi to watch the sun set over the creaking icebergs. "I prefer hunting," he says. "But the outside world didn't give me a choice."
Greenland's sealskin market took its first hit in 1972, when the U.S. government passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act banning the import of such products. Crusades against seal hunting in the mid-'80s then caused the European market to crash.
FIGHTING BACK. Today only three settlements in this Danish colony (population 56,000) exist by hunting, where before nearly everyone did. Other communities struggle by on state subsidies. "Preventing us from exporting sealskin is like canceling our culture," says Josef Motzfeldt, Greenland's Finance Minister.
Now the hunters are fighting back. The World Trade Organization will hold a meeting of ministers in Seattle at the end of this month to promote further liberalization of trade. The Greenland Home Rule Government intends to push the restoration of the right to export seal parts onto the conference's agenda. Contrary to the impression given by environmental groups, the harp seal is not an endangered species. A stock of around 4 million seals inhabits the waters between Canada and Greenland, from which the Greenlanders kill 75,000 a year. Since WTO regulations prohibit countries from setting up barriers to trade in products from animals that are not endangered, bans on seal product imports should be lifted, the Greenland government will argue.
To win people over to the pro-hunting cause, the Greenlanders aim to use the campaign strategies so effectively deployed by environmentalists. They have enlisted the help of increasingly influential indigenous people's organizations, such as Arctic Peoples Alert, and signed up lobbyists in Brussels. However, environmental groups, apparently unmoved by the fate of the Inuit, are likely to oppose lifting the ban. "International trade agreements must not be used to undermine laws that protect the environment," argues Gerry Leape, director of Greenpeace's oceans campaign. A WTO resolution on the seal trade is unlikely to come out of the meeting, but ministers may agree to schedule the issue for future negotiation.
So is this a case of urbanites in rich countries telling an ancient people how to live? Or do the environmentalists have a point? Aqqaluk Lynge, head of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, which represents Inuits in Alaska, Canada, Russia, and Greenland, thinks the question is far simpler. "What it comes down to is: Whose face do you think is cuter, that of a seal or that of an Inuit?" Well, those seals are pretty photogenic--which doesn't bode well for the Greenlanders.
Italian tourists wandering through the dusty streets in search of an authentic whale steak dinner are a common sight in Illulissat. By virtue of its breathtaking iceberg scenery, this former hunting settlement of 4,000 people and 6,000 husky dogs is now firmly on the cruise-liner route. But Illulissat, like most other towns in Greenland, has social problems the tourists rarely see. Thanks to generous Danish handouts and state salaries, Illulissat's inhabitants are better off than Inuits elsewhere in the world. But they also have one of the highest rates of HIV infection in Europe. Alcoholism is widespread. Suicide is common among young men. "There is a loss of self-esteem brought about by the dramatic changes in society," says Grethe Kramer, a substance-abuse counselor.
Before it's too late, the government is attempting to give a boost to hunting by opening seal-product markets in Asia and South America, where environmentalists hold less sway. An American, Dave Stevens, is already exporting spicy Greenlandic seal sausages to China through his company Puisi. "The Scandinavians are buying fur again," reports Darthe Birthe, an Illulissat sealskin dealer. But it may be a while before we see sealskin back on Milan's catwalks.