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Environmental NGOs Team Up with Inuit

The relationship between Indigenous organizations and environmental NGOs used to be one of conflict and suspicion. But now these groups are working together to protect species, environments, culture and a common future.

Written by Martina Tyrrell Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
The Greenpeace vessel Arctic Sunrise in Adventfjorden, Spitsbergen, Norway.Wikimedia Commons/
, CC BY-SA 3.0

For the Inuit, Greenpeace was once a byword for all environmental organizations. Back in the early 2000s, when I conducted anthropological research into marine mammal hunting in communities in Nunavut and Nunavik, Canada, Inuit who didn’t already know me frequently asked: “Are you Greenpeace?”

Hunters, suspicious of my motives, were concerned my field notes and photographs would contribute to environmentalist campaigns against their hunting practices. I was not a member of Greenpeace, nor any other environmental organization, but it didn’t take long for me to catch on to the mixture of insult and suspicion in their voices.

Inuit had every right to be suspicious. Since at least the 1950s, government and non-governmental environmental organizations had directly or inadvertently disrupted Inuit livelihoods and transformed Inuit culture in ways that were not to their liking or choosing.

In the 1950s, the federal Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) speculated that ongoing Inuit hunting of caribou, musk ox and polar bear would quickly lead to the extirpation (local extinction) of these species. CWS became active in transforming Inuit into “modern Canadians.” Minutes of a 1953 CWS meeting called for “the movement of Eskimos … to places where they can be assured of making a better living.” That “better living” would be one centered on industrial and clerical labor, far removed from subsistence hunting. Inuit reflect on their sometimes forced movement into permanent settlements as a dark period in the history of their colonization.

By the 1980s, subsistence hunting had grown reliant on motorized snowmobiles, outboard motors and fuel. In the eastern Arctic, these expenses were mitigated by the sale of excess seal pelts on international markets. So, when the Greenpeace-led anti-sealing campaign got under way, Inuit suffered collateral damage. The campaign sought to end the hunting of fur seal pups in Newfoundland and was not directed at Inuit subsistence hunting of other seal species. However, the loose wording of the anti-sealing campaign, and the loosely worded E.U. (then EEC) and U.S. legislation that followed, led to the closure of international markets upon which eastern Arctic Inuit communities had come to depend. Thirty years on, some Baffin Island communities are still recovering emotionally and economically from the sudden closure of those markets.

When, in 2014, executive director of Greenpeace Canada, Joanna Kerr, issued a public apology to Inuit for the economic and cultural pain caused by the 1970s and 80s anti-sealing campaign, it marked a sea change in the relationship between the organization and Indigenous northerners. Kerr acknowledged the harm done and promised that Greenpeace was now “humbly making amends and changing the way [it works].”

The content of this apology suggests a more mature Greenpeace, cognizant of the complexities of Arctic environmental issues. Instead of the ecocentric-anthropocentric dichotomy of earlier single-issue environmental actions, environmental NGOs now emphasize and work towards the maintenance of Arctic biodiversity and cultural diversity.

Indeed, the apology for the impact of the anti-sealing campaign in 2014 coincided with the publication of Greenpeace Canada’s Policy on Indigenous Rights, which recognizes, among other things “the inherent link between ecological health and human well-being” and “the right of Indigenous People to carry out traditional activities,” including hunting, fishing and trapping. Greenpeace now seeks to actively collaborate with Indigenous people across the Arctic.

Greenpeace is not the first organization to embrace the complexities of Arctic environmentalism. WWF has been working with Inuit on both ecosystem research and community-based projects and, in 2012, opened a Nunavut office. Among other things, it works with communities to reduce polar bear-human conflict and develops conservation plans in collaboration with Indigenous partners.

In early May, when former Greenpeace activist and current director of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, Paul Watson, accused Greenpeace of betraying its original ideals, he got one thing right – Greenpeace is enlisting the support of Inuit in its fight against oil companies.

An alliance between environmental NGOs and Inuit has become necessary for both parties. While the former seek to protect species and environments at risk, the latter seek to protect their culture and their future, of which those species and environments are integral. Their coalition for environmental justice, sustainability and animal and human rights faces the might of multinational corporations and governments that continue to pursue agendas of fossil-fuel extraction and use. Environmental NGOs and Indigenous organizations are stronger together than alone.

It is difficult for Inuit to forget the 50 years of environmental action that disrupted lives, culture and livelihoods. But environmental organizations are making amends, as they recognize that, in the Inuit, they have strong allies for whom the Arctic is home. Greenpeace’s Joanna Kerr wrote that the organization is decolonizing its thinking and language. Being open to non-Western approaches to conservation and ecosystems is critical for collaboration that will benefit the Arctic’s human and animal inhabitants.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and may not reflect those of Arctic Deeply.

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