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Whales point to home rule

Richard Black | 14:40 UK time, Wednesday, 26 November 2008

The enthusiastic backing that Greenlanders have just given to enhanced independence from Denmark is largely to do with the wealth that oil and gas reserves could bring.

Whale huntingBut the territory - which perhaps we shall soon now have to refer to as a country - has its eye on other "natural resources" as well.

These are the whales and seals that the Inuit people have historically hunted, an activity which some in Greenland feel the West - for which you can read "Europe" - is unfairly trying to curtail.

More autonomy, they feel, will mean more rights to exploit the whales and seals and the trade they bring.

Part of Greenland's existing whale hunt is conducted under International Whaling Commission (IWC) rules permitting indigenous groups such as the Inuit to catch whales for eating. The other part involves species such as the belgua and narwhal that are outside the IWC's jurisdiction.

After the IWC turned down a bid to include humpback whales in the hunt, Greenland's fisheries minister wrote to Denmark - which represents it - asking whether the territory could, in effect, put itself outside the IWC.

Now, it seems, the wish is being granted. Probably not by next year's IWC meeting, but perhaps by the one after, responsibility for Greenland's whaling will transfer from Copenhagen to Nuuk, meaning the Arctic country would be free to leave the IWC it if liked.

The indications are that it does like; and it matters, because for the first time in decades, a significant whaling nation would then be outside the international organisation charged with regulating it.

The European Commission's approach to seal hunting has also aroused the ire of the Inuit, especially the proposal earlier this year to ban trade in seal products between and into EU nations.

Inuit leaders see whaling and sealing largely in the context of indigenous peoples' rights - the right to live a culture which may have very different standards than are common currency in London or Brussels or Washington, and which is vouchsafed by the United Nations.

Opponents argue that creeping commercialisation means there is a blurred line between an indigenous right and a commercial activity that would be banned anywhere else.

The cultural history of whale hunting is a powerful argument around the Arctic, and found new traction this year in Canada's Nunavik region where hunters landed their first bowhead whale of the modern era.

Even as Greenland eyes a prosperous oil- and gas-fuelled future, it is clear that the Inuit are keener than ever to keep alive these traditions which mark their past, however much infuriation they cause elsewhere.

What is less clear is whether societies opposing whaling and sealing have the power - or, indeed, the moral right - to do anything about it.

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