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Inuit, the Polar Bear and Climate Change

March 22nd, 2013

by Luke Dale-Harris

What's really behind the sudden global concern over the Inuit’s right to hunt - a concern that swung the polar bear vote at CITES? Luke Dale-Harris reports

It is not hunting that is decimating the polar bear population but climate change

Among the indigenous population of the Western Arctic, there is a story that has been around for as long as anyone can remember. It’s about a young girl who, unable to be fed by her family, is thrown into the sea from a kayak, her fingers severed beforehand so she cannot swim to shore.

As she sinks to the bottom, her severed fingers transform into whales, dolphins and seals, providing food ashore for the local people and the sea mammals' other predator, the polar bear. The girls name changes from region to region, but always comes back to the same symbols; a mother figure and, pertinently, the image of a table full of food.

The story is still around today. Taught in schools, parodied on Inuit TV channels, and recited at harvest celebrations, it continues to hold huge relevance to the Inuit way of life. But it also comes up on more serious occasions. As each of the Inuit’s traditional food sources have become, one after the other, threatened with extinction and then put up for protection by international conservation organisations, the rights of the Inuit to continue the hunt that forms the backbone of their culture and, for many, their livelihood, has always been a central argument of the opposition. 

This was the case at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Bangkok earlier this month, where the US put forward a proposal for a complete ban in the trade of the rapidly disappearing polar bear. They argued that, with 2/3 of the polar bear population predicted to disappear by 2050 due to climate change, hunting was an added burden that couldn’t be supported. 

The opposition to the proposal was led by Canada and Greenland (represented through their host state Denmark), who based their argument partly on the shaky grounds that there was little evidence to show that the polar bear population is threatened, and partly on the more solid reality of the effects the ban would have on the Inuit population. In the days running up to the vote, the opposition rapidly gathered momentum and finally succeeded in overruling the proposal on March 6th. 

But while the debate oscillated between the rights of the Inuit and those of the polar bear, questions began to come up on both sides about who was really being represented here. The conservationists argued that the opposition were interested in keeping good relationships with the Arctic States and their indigenous populations for purposes of future resource extraction, rather than a genuine concern for the wellbeing of the Inuits. On the other side, the representative body of Canadian Inuits accused the US of using ‘the perfect poster child’ of the polar bear to distract the world from its lack of action over climate change. 

Of course, both sides were partly right- politics is never far away at CITES. But a key factor was ominously absent from the debate; both the Inuit and the polar bear are victims of climate change. Policy therefore, rather than picking sides, must take each into account equally. 

In Greenland, where 80% of the population is indigenous Inuit, the polarized debate has caste the environmentalists as the bad guys. ‘People here feel cornered by the demands of the environmentalists’ says Parnuna Egede, environmental advisor at the Inuit Circumpolar Council.

‘First the EU banned the sale of seal skins, so we can’t live off that anymore. Now they’re trying to ban the seal hunt completely, as well as the polar bear hunt, and the restrictions on whaling. All that will be left is mining and resource extraction - which is of course something that the US and Europe are very interested in. ’

The Greenlandic government, a largely autonomous Inuit outfit, have been garnering condemnation from environmentalists for years over its whaling, fishing and hunting practices and its reluctance to cooperate with internationally enforced restrictions. Its members argue, alongside the Canadian Inuits, that the polar bear hunt is sustainable and the bear’s population stable. The same argument is behind their demands for an increase in the subsistence whaling quota that have, until now, refused to be heard.

Isolated from external factors, the arguments hold up. It is not hunting that is decimating the polar bear population but climate change, while whales, similarly affected, have suffered the additional pressure of decades of over fishing from foreign boats. Without these factors, the Greenlanders' relatively small harvest would be sustainable, but when taken into account, it presents an added pressure the animals can’t support. 

‘The thing is, the Inuit didn’t bring about climate change, but we have to pay the price’ says Egede. ‘That’s why we wish that the US and Europe would do something about their carbon emissions, instead of chasing us about our hunting and fishing. That would be much more beneficial to everyone, the polar bear included.’

Peter Pueschel, director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, agrees in principle but not in practice. ‘There is a feeling among governments that they are morally obliged to just accept what is happening to the polar bears as the priority is the respect of the indigenous people. But it is the wrong kind of friendship approach. As climate change wipes out the polar bear population, the Inuits will have to find alternative means for their livelihoods anyway. We can only help them by assisting in this process, not by ignoring the problem.’

But, in a land of sea and ice, what else is there but hunting and fishing? As the ice caps shrink and access to previously uninhabited areas opens up, apparently quite a lot. ‘The whole world has got its eyes on the Arctic at the moment’ says Egede. ‘The rush for Arctic oil and gas has begun.’ 

Critics argue that this could well be the driving force behind the sudden global concern behind the Inuit’s right to hunt that swung the polar bear vote at CITES. With Inuit groups across the Arctic increasingly self governed, their support is now vital to countries looking to gain access to the resources.  

According to Marton Kelemen of CEEweb, a network of NGOs representing 20 countries at CITES, the use of the indigenous cause as a reason to oppose environmental regulation at CITES is as old as the conference itself. But this year marked a breaking point, for the first time we saw the livelihoods of an indigenous group being held as a reason to support increased regulation, not prevent it. 

‘The indigenous people of the Caribbean had a large part to play in the swinging of the vote over the hammerhead shark and the mantra ray at CITES last week. Over the years, they have come to rely on the shark and ray not as food, but as central attractions to hundreds of small scuba-diving businesses. For animal protection, and for indigenous groups, this is a move in the right direction’.

Egede agrees that tourism could offer some sort of solution to Greenland’s problems, and will likely have a large role to play in the future of that nation's economy. ‘There should be a balance between our local traditional hunting and tourism’ she says. ‘It’s just a matter finding where that balance is’. 

There is a fashion in Greenland that has survived all the fads and changes brought north with global commerce. From students to pensioners, people like to wear a part of the polar bear somewhere on their body, be it a tooth hung around the neck, a claw fashioned onto a broach or just a single piece of fur tacked on to a jumper. In recent years though, as these body parts have become scarcer, an industry of replicas has sprung up, the young especially happy to wear a symbol of the bear carved from reindeer antler or plastic. 

‘People are still amazed by the polar bear’, says Egede. ‘That’s not going to change.’

But, as the world catches up with them and global warming becomes a reality that cannot be ignored, the relationship of the indigenous community with it may have to. 

Luke Dale-Harris is a freelance journalist and documentary-maker living in Transylvania, Romania.

Image courtesy of www.shutterstock.com

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