By Lucy Jones, Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News
ILLULISSAT, Greenland – Salik Hans used to be a hunter. He never made much money selling the fur from the seals he and his family ate, but it was enough to buy groceries at the local government store in Illulissat, 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle in western Greenland.
Today, Mr. Hans and other hunters from the settlement stand around smoking next to their battered taxis, waiting to take wealthy tourists from cruise ships to watch the sun set over the icebergs.
“I prefer hunting, but the outside world didn’t give me a choice,” he said.
The harp seal is not an endangered species. A stock of at least 4 million inhabits the waters off Greenland, from which the Inuit of Greenland kill 70,000 a year.
But the legacy of anti-fur campaigns by environmentalists and existing trade barriers preventing the import of seal parts into the United States make it almost impossible for Greenlanders to sell one of their most valuable resources abroad.
“Traditional hunting communities have been destroyed by campaigns based on emotion instead of scientific evidence. It’s like an economic sanction against the northern communities,” said Aqqaluk Lynge, president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, representing Inuits, who are dispersed across Alaska, Greenland, Canada and Russia.
Only three settlements in Greenland survive solely by hunting. The rest on this island that is 85 percent covered by ice depend on government subsidies and earnings from Greenland’s handful of tourists.
“There are no other possibilities for people of Greenland to exist. They can’t harvest crops, and they can’t farm the land. Preventing us from exporting sealskin is like canceling our culture,” said Josef Motzfeldt, Greenland’s finance minister.
Unemployment rates reach 20 percent in some settlements. Alcoholism and drug use are widespread and thought to be related to the joblessness. HIV rates are among the highest in Europe. Suicide accounts for 10 percent of all deaths and is most common among young men.
“The decline in hunting is having a profound effect on our society,” said Aviaaja Lynge, of the grass-roots independence organization Nammineq. “Young boys brought up to think they are a somebody are suddenly no longer considered special. They find this difficult to cope with.”
The sealskin market took a hit in 1972 when the U.S. government passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which banned the import of marine mammal products. But it was a crusade against seal hunting by environmental groups in the mid-’80s that took the bottom out of the more lucrative European market.
Lumped together with commercial hunters elsewhere in world, the Greenlanders were often accused of clubbing baby seals and over-hunting.
Greenlanders say this portrayal was inaccurate, because they only kill adult seal and use rifles. The Greenlanders also say that because they number just over 55,000, their impact on seal stocks is limited.
But environmental groups disagree.
“The Greenlanders use open-water hunting methods. Sometimes they shoot a seal but don’t reach it in time, so it slips back into the water. So although 75,000 seals are killed every year, the figure could be double that. This, in conjunction with the 240,000 seals killed in Canada, is a major conservation concern,” said Rick Smith, Canadian director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
As a result of the sealskin industry’s decline, Greenland’s tannery went bankrupt, the country’s two fur companies almost closed and hunters started discarding seal fur because it brought such a low price.
During the 1990s, environmental groups have turned their attention away from seal hunting. This has allowed a small increase in fur coat sales, mainly to Scandinavia. And an American has started exporting spicy sausages made from seal meat to China.
However, selling fur in Europe is still almost impossible. The European Union technically allows the import of products from adult seals and only forbids those from pup seals.
But “very few customs officials know how to tell the difference between fur from a pup seal and adult seal,” said Amalie Jessen, of Greenland’s hunting bureau. “And although fur comes from the adult seal, usually it is simply not let in.”
At the World Trade Organization’s meeting in Seattle this month, the Greenland Home Rule Government pushed the export of seal parts onto the conference’s agenda. Greenland is part of Denmark but is self-governing.
The WTO prohibits any country from setting up barriers for products that are not endangered. Because the harp seal does not fall into this category, all bans on seal imports should be lifted, ministers argued.
“We have always protected animals in this country. We have never taken more than we need. There are millions of seals. We need to sell outside of Greenland,” said Jonathan Motzfeldt, Greenland’s premier.
But a WTO agenda was not passed, and the Greenlanders got “nothing out of the meeting.”
“Even if an agenda had been passed then, I doubt indigenous peoples’ trade issues would have been on it. But more and more countries are pushing the issue,” said a U.S.-based Danish official, who declined to be named.
Meanwhile, ministers in Greenland are enlisting the support of pro-indigenous people’s organizations, such as the Arctic People’s Alert, lobbyists in Brussels and politicians across Europe to change people’s minds about the wearing of sealskin.
“What it will come down to is whose face do you think is cuter – that of a seal or that of an Inuit,” said Aqqaluk Lynge, of the conference representing Inuits.