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A whale of problem

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Jun 15, 1999 | From the print edition

INUIT, WHALING, AND SUSTAINABILITY:·By Milton M R Freeman, Ingmar Egede et al ·Published by Altamira Press, New Delhi

Threatened by overexplotation< ONE of the less desirable features of globalisation is that decisions made in far away cities can drastically and adversely affect small local communities across oceans and continents. These communities are often helpless in reversing the decisions made by people who have little understanding of, or sympathy for, the cultural aspirations of the affected people. The Inuit, the native circumpolar communities, provide an example.

Traditionally whale hunters, the Inuit inhabit the cold regions of countries like Canada, the us and Russia. The international concern for the declining stocks of certain kinds of whales has created great public pressure to put an end to whale hunting. This has deeply affected the cultural, spiritual and nutritional aspects of Inuit life. Commissions and conventions like the United Nations' Convention on the Law of the Seas (unclos) and International Whaling Commission (iwc) have virtually ended commercial whaling. However, they have failed to take note of the basic physical and cultural needs of the Inuit. This book tries to put forward the Inuit perspective "on the integral role whales play in cultural, economic, philosophical and nutritional aspects of life," and how decisions taken by bodies like iwc adversely affect their basic interests. The Inuit Circumpolar Conference laments that Arctic pollution that had its origin in far away cities ultimately affects them. Similarly, a certain kind of 'pollution of the mind' which began somewhere else in the big cities has come to affect them. And that 'pollution of the mind,' as seen by the Inuit, are misguided ideas about whale hunting and sustainability. It is a pollution, say the Inuit, because like all pollution 'it does not belong where it is seen'.

The blanket ban on all whale species, in fact, is against the iwc and unclos' rules and reflects only a changing fad among some commissioners who have little knowledge of the Inuit culture in which sustainability and restraint are inbuilt. The Inuit always think in terms of protecting the stock of sea mammals from depletion because they not only live on them but have established a kind of symbiotic relationship with them.

The iwc and unclos provisions were introduced to ensure sustainability of sea mammal populations, not as a blanket ban on all kinds of whaling. This is possibly one of the reasons why Canada has opted out of the iwc. The Inuit hunt whales because it is a dire need for their sustenance. Inuit communities around the poles are so habituated to marine animal protein that anything else makes them sick. Even chicken, pork and beef don't agree with their system. No wonder, one old Inuit is quoted as saying, "when we don't have the whale nutrients in our bodies, it is like a part of our body is missing".

The iwc and unclos clauses are basically about the protection of the larger (and endangered) varieties of whales like the bowheads but a new fad among iwc members seems to be willing to enforce the ban on the smaller (and abundant) varieties also. The smaller ones are not endangered. It is a matter of great concern to these traditional communities whose health, culture and lifestyles are threatened.

The Inuit warn that any attempt to replace their food habits with those of 'the white man' would seriously compromise their health and well-being. There are among the healthiest of people, free from diseases like high blood pressure, artereoclosis, heart disease, cerebral stroke and cancers of several types. The secret of all this lies in their food habits, they claim.

The message that emerges from this book is that a balance has to be struck between overexploitation of sea resources by commercial whalers and the genuine needs of local communities like the Inuit. That balance is yet to be struck.

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