Eskimos surrender to lure of oil
Saturday 20 June 1998
Half of the passengers are wearing whale-tooth pendants around their necks. Some are carrying sealskin bags. Old Inuit men with ocean-going faces watch in bemusement as the 20,000kg Orca evades another slaughter.
Every fishing boat in the harbour at Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, is equipped with a harpoon gun. Here, the mention of Free Willy makes people bristle with resentment. "Yes I know it. A boy and a killer whale," Anthon Siegstad, head of the national hunters association says, shaking his head sadly as he looks out across the fjords. "This is the kind of emotional and cultural dishonesty which has destroyed a way of life for many people here. We don't make films about your factory pigs and cows."
Sentimentality about the environment or its inhabitants is alien to the Inuit psyche. Animals, like the land and the ocean, are held in a reverence and respect bordering on the spiritual. But the Eskimo has never seen a conflict between this and the expectation that a whale or a seal should from time to time give itself up to sustain human life.
On the street corners of the capital people gather with rifles over their shoulders ready for a day hunting seals. Under the rules of the International Whaling Commission, aboriginal whaling is still permitted but the quota of around 120 minke (unendangered) whales a year is too small to meet Greenland's domestic demand (whale was never exported) and even this is under sustained international attack.
No Greenlander has ever clubbed a baby seal to death, yet they were tarred by Greenpeace with the same brush as the commercial hunters of Newfoundland. Greenpeace later apologised but the damage was done. The markets for sealskin have been wiped out, with huge social and economic consequences. Greenpeace has been renamed Greenshit in many Inuit villages. Commercial fishing, the only industry, is also under threat. Lucrative cod stocks have all but disappeared after a two-degree drop in the ocean temperature.
Other economic hopes are remote. Tourism is almost non-existent as there is no infrastructure and Greenland remains dependent on Danish grant aid for 60 per cent of the national income.
But Greenlanders could be sitting on a gold mine. The helicopters of multinational oil companies and mineral prospectors are swarming over the biggest island in the world. And the rumour is that after years of inactivity - the last cryolite mines closed in the mid-1980s, Greenland is on the brink of a mining explosion.
Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister, Jonathan Motzfelt, signed off-shore exploration licences for the Scandinavian oil giants Statoil and Phillips in the Danish Strait, the waters between Canada and Greenland. Seismic testing has shown exciting results. Potential oil and gas basins cover 400,000 square kilometres. New technology means drilling at 1,200 metres is possible, reducing the danger of collision with icebergs.
In a key political development meanwhile on 1 July, after a long battle with their ultimate rulers the Danes, Greenlanders will secure full control of the administration of mineral resources. That will almost certainly lead to a big surge in Arctic mining activity. The revenue would release Greenland from its economic dependence on Denmark. Political ties with Copenhagen could be severed leaving Greenland to decide its own terms for international negotiations such as the US airbase at Thule.
"For years people have been saying there's gold in them thar hills," says Adrian Redmond a British consultant, "but the geologists now believe they are on the verge of something big."
Other mineral-rich parts of the globe might be easier to access but they lack political stability. The big question is whether the resources here can be extracted profitably.
Canadian prospectors sitting in the bars of Nuuk speak with wide eyes of the gold, diamonds, rubies and opals they have seen. Big Canadian names such as Falconbridge, Cominco and Platinova have taken out licences to explore along most of the western coast. US and Australian interests have also arrived.
Greenland's leaders are confident they could interest the European Union in a major mining deal. "Europe has a lot of mining companies and we have a continent full of minerals on our hands. This could be the basis for a new relationship," says Lars Vesterbirk, the man who negotiated Greenland's secession from the then EEC, in 1985.
But mining risks bringing Greenlanders into conflict once more with environmental groups and radical animal rights movements. The Arctic environment and ecological balance is "extremely vulnerable", says John Walter, a Greenpeace International spokesman. "Pipeline technology is untested in these conditions," he says, adding that there would be huge risk of spills. Oil running through the pipe radiates heat and destabilises ice. And if there is a spill, it would be frozen for nine months of the year which would be an ecological disaster.
Apart from the environment, a Klondike scenario opens up the prospect of cultural and social upheaval. Studies comparing what happened in Alaska have been commissioned by the government.
Meanwhile, public support for mining is growing. Twenty-five years ago when Lars Vesterbirk went around Greenland's outlying communities to talk to Inuit people about mining, he was met with stones and rotten eggs. Now he says: "Resistance has crumbled. Younger ones know it is the key to political independence and prosperity and all the political parties are now agreed it is the only way to broaden our economic base. The cod are not coming back."
Adrian Redmond believes the potential for mistakes is enormous. "The consequences could be colossal. It would be very worrying if Greenland was to go the same way as Alaska. That is why everyone must be involved in deciding on the choices."
Nuuk, a sleepy, port town of 13,000 people, a church, a hotel, a couple of bars and a few shops, would be at the centre of an oil boom. It could become Las Vegas overnight he says, and the rest of the country could go down hill. "This is a moral political and ideological dilemma for Greenland because the nation could simply drown if the wealth comes too quickly."
Extraction of minerals would seriously challenge the Inuit concept that it is not possible to privately own land. Another question is how would the wealth be managed. Would Greenlanders wisely hold spending at today's levels or would they spend it all and become the sheikhs of the Arctic?
The debate will put immense strain on the Inuit desire to be a modern independent people with the necessary self-determination to protect their culture and ethnic uniqueness.
"We are living in the modern world and have the same economic needs as everyone else. We are not here to live out the fantasies of white people about Eskimos," says Aqquluk Lynge, chairman of a pan-Inuit movement.
But how the Inuit will hold on to their cultural heritage and even their language, in the face of the inevitable new colonialism of the oil and mining giants remains unanswered.
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