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Greenland and the evolving concept of ‘Local Community’ in relation to its demands for increased large whale quotas

Since the IWC meeting, I have been asked by some observers why do I think that the Greenlandic and Danish delegations actively threw away their chances of getting a quota this year?

These same officials knew that the European Uion (EU), after the revelations of tourists eating bowhead whale meat and an internal EU coordination meeting, were pledged to vote for an amended proposal. But when the EU tried to propose an amended quota, Denmark flatly refused, demanding that its original proposal was voted on immediately. Again, why did they not negotiate? And why did they insist on leaving without a quota rather than at least an appropriate number of whales for the Greenland’s real ASW hunters? It would seem Nuuk and Copenhagen politics may have been more important to these diplomats.

I have been giving these question some consideration, and these are some initial thoughts on the wider questions.


Some thoughts on the politics of a nation seeking to define itself

Whilst some observers would suggest that Greenland is an increasingly changing country, the Greenland Home Rule Government, noted during the 2008 IWC meeting[1] that ‘in the definition [of aboriginal subsistence whaling], the terms ‘local community’ and ‘predominant portion’ are not defined. In it’s view, Greenland is a local community and that a ‘predominant portion’ would be something above 50%.

Denmark regularly repeats its assertion that the whole of Greenland is now ‘a local community’. In doing so, it seeks to imply that the Greenlandic peoples are a homogenous whole. This of course, has a specific meaning when arguing for whale quotas as it maximizes the number of people one can argue require whale products to satisfy need. In terms of an accurate anthropological analysis it may be a claim that is open to question.

This argument deserves significant discussion but here are some limited comments that seek to encapsulate some of the anthropological evidence that may challenge the Danish stated position.

In the early 1980s the Greenlandic Government made a somewhat different set of arguments to that of their modern counterparts.

Petersen et al.[2] on behalf of the Danish and Greenlandic Government, put forward a series of definitions in their arguments for Greenlandic aboriginal subsistence whaling to the IWC.

In seeking to define subsistence catches the authors offer the following definition,

‘”Subsistence catches” mean catches where the products are clearly intended for local consumption’.

In seeking to define ‘Local Consumption’ they state,

‘The definition suggested in the TCWG on Subsistence Whaling, April 1979, may be used for the Greenland case: “Local consumption means consumption by participants in the harvest, or by others in the local community, or by persons in locations other than the local community with who local residents share familial, social, or cultural ties.”’[3]

Whilst the proponents of expansive Greenlandic whaling quote the 1979 Working Group it should be noted that the definitions adopted in 1982[4] actually state,

‘Aboriginal/subsistence whaling means whaling, for purposes of local aboriginal consumption, carried out by or on behalf of aboriginals, indigenous or native peoples who share strong community, social and cultural ties related to a continuing traditional dependence on whaling and on the use of whales

Local aboriginal consumption means the traditional uses of whale products by local aboriginal, indigenous or native communities in meeting their nutritional, subsistence and cultural requirements. The term includes trade in items which are by-products of subsistence catches’

In discussing the issue of economic systems in aboriginal subsistence whaling, the IWC expert panel that met in Seattle, Washington in February 1979, concluded that the example of Alaskan Eskimo whaling had an economic system that emphasizes ‘the distribution, rather than the mere accumulation of surplus’ (Emphasis in original.)[5]

Thus modern day Greenlandic and Danish proponents fail to note the specific aspects of international agreement that subsistence hunting was for ‘for purposes of local aboriginal consumption’ and that only ‘by-products’ should be traded.

Whilst many anthropologists are used by the Danish Government to justify their claims as to a homogenous society, other anthropologists reflect on a different dynamic being evident in Greenland. This is especially true when one considers the contrast between the drive for nation building that is seen in Danish and Greenlandic politicians and the lives of some local traditional Greenlandic communities.

Sejersen, of the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, writes in 2002[6],

‘…the reification and codification of knowledge which are encountered in North America are not seen in Greenland. Here, old people do not have the same status in the public sphere. One may, provokingly, say that there are no elders in Greenland – only old people. Communities and the young people seldom look up old people to gain knowledge and values for the good life. Some young Greenlanders even complain about the vague, political neutral and Danish friendly attitude of their parents. One also sees many Greenlandic families where the children are urged to get an education and urged not to become hunters and fishermen as their parents. In this sense, the parents themselves are expanding the gap by urging their children to pursue the good life outside the hunting complex.

I claim that this gap between generations – discontinuity in the generational interface – can be seen as a fragmentation of society and a fragmentation of strategies for the good life. However, Greenlanders seem to accept the fragmentation and perhaps even encourage it compared to Inuit in North America …’.

Sejersen further argues that the Home Rule Governments’ attempt to centralize control has ridden roughshod over the local differences that can be seen in Greenland.

According to Dahl (1998)[7],

‘…this nation building process overshadows and in some cases replaces community control and rights with national control and decision-making. It has furthermore created new administrative categories of resources users (occupational and non-occupational hunters) detached from local communities in order to embrace the Greenlandic population in total.’

Sejersen (2001)[8] further elaborates these divisions when discussing the Greenlandic Beluga hunt.

‘Beluga hunters come from all groups within the diverse socioeconomic landscape found in Sisimiut. Out of the 5127 inhabitants in Sisimiut (Grønlands Statistik, 2000:427), there are 210 occupational hunters and 1079 non-occupational hunters registered (in the year 2000). Of the 210 occupational hunters, about 50 make a living primarily from hunting all year round, according to the local association of hunters. The remaining 160 persons have fishing as their primary occupation, but they still qualify to apply for an occupational hunting licence because they receive more than 50% of their income from hunting and fishing. Hunters who do not qualify for an occupational hunting licence can hold a non-occupational hunting licence, available to anyone who is in the national register. Holders of valid hunting licenses are considered hunters and are allowed by the Home Rule government to pursue beluga whaling. Thus, stock-owners, sport hunters, and politicians in expensive motorboats hunt side by side with hunters in small skiffs and fishermen onboard cutters and trawlers.’  [Emphasis added]

Sejersen, in the same paper, goes onto note the impacts of commercialization on the shared experience of the hunt and the method of distribution. Whilst defending the local commercial trade (within close familial and community), Sejersen notes that the market orientation of many hunters has produced mixed responses from community members, as they experience a decrease in the amount of meat and mattak being shared.   Elaboration of rules of division of whale meat, ‘served the bigger boats and the capital investments to a further extent. Increasingly, capital investment became and argument to legitimize changes in division rules.’

Sejersen further challenges the ‘one nation’ concept in arguing that the [application of] national [Home Rule] ‘regulations erode the social control of small communities such as Saqqaq.’  Dahl[9] (1998, 2000)[10] describes the management of hunting prior to the introduction of Home Rule as,

‘…based on local social control of a community hunting territory…the right to hunt was closely linked to the social obligation to accept the local customs of hunting methods, division, and sharing. The hunting territory was defined in social terms rather than in geographical terms. By combining rights and obligations, the community was able to enforce social control, maintain the network of social relations, and underpin community continuity. “The heart of the matter is that we deal with a society in which access to the territory is defined by membership in a community, and within this the access is non-exclusive” (Dahl, 1998:68). The establishment of the Greenlandic Home Rule in 1979 has consolidated Nuuk as the administrative and political centre, and the control has been put in the hands of politicians, bureaucrats, and the police force. The Home Rule has taken over and monopolized the allocation of user, access, and disposition rights to citizens in Greenland (Dahl, 1998:74–75), and this change has influenced community territories and community control. Furthermore, Home Rule has based its allocation of rights on the assertion that all inhabitants have equal user rights to the Greenlandic territory and its resources has been turned into one hunting territory.’ [Emphasis added]

In addition, Dahl (1998) argues that ‘local control is evaporating and is being replaced by a weak or non-existent national control system’.  Sejersen paints a picture of a geographically, socio-economically, differentiated country. The Home Rule Government ‘places no limitations on hunters’ user rights and few limitation on access rights. Consequently skiff [hunters], who depend economically upon small-scale hunting, are seen whaling together with non-occupational hunters, crew members on shrimp trawlers, and fishermen on cutters.’

Both Dahl and Sejersen argue that not all Greenlanders are good hunters or community minded – In reality not all ‘hunters’ in Greenland are ‘subsistence hunters’ (beyond the occupational and non-occupational divisions), as Denmark and the Greenlandic Home Rule Government may have suggested.

Siku News[11] reported in 2009 that,

‘…some Greenland hunters appear to disregard sustainability guidelines, say wildlife experts who say they frequently find seals discarded in harbour rubbish bins, reports Sermitsiaq. Christian Isaksen accuses hunters of unnecessarily shooting seals. “I’ve seen hunters in central and southern Greenland shoot up to 50 seals, but then they only take one home with them for food,” Isaksen said. Although seals are not an endangered animal, Isaksen said excess hunting is an image problem for hunters.

“There’s no longer any pride connected with calling yourself a sealer,” he said. The government established sustainability guidelines for hunters, and Isaksen suggested that it do more to ensure that marine mammals are hunted responsibly. “We’ve already forgotten what they taught us. It’s time to teach us again,” Isaksen said.’

In their drive for nation building, the Greenlandic Home Rule Government has created an image of Greenland where the very resources that defined Greenland may soon be denied to those Greenlanders that may well have a real nutritional and cultural need to access them.

Nuttal writing in 1994 believed that ‘Greenlanders are the only population on Inuit origin to have achieved Home Rule, and it is no longer tenable to construct for them (or for Greenlanders to construct for themselves) an identity as an oppressed minority in relation to a dominant nation state’.[12]

Some authors believe that what they call Denmark’s colonial guilt[13] does nothing to inhibit, and may be expediting these problems.[14]

The move over the last few years to secure larger baleen whale quotas may be a response to defining a new Home Rule identity (Greenland vs. the rest of the world creates an external polarization that ‘papers over the cracks’ in the Greenlandic whaling complex), and the drive to create an increasingly commercial whaling paradigm may serve the politicians and some individuals’ interests, but it is also a strategy that may well destroy the very fabric of what made Greenland Greenlandic in the first place.

Notes and references

[1] Chairman’s Report, 2008, IWC

[2] Petersen, R., Lemche, E. and Kapel, F.O. Subsistence Whaling in Greenland, TC33/WG/S3

[3] Note this definition was never formally adopted by the IWC

[4] Donavan, G.P. (1982) The International Whaling Commission and Aboriginal Subsistence whaling: April 1979 to July 1981. In G.P. Donavan, ed. Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling (with special reference to the Alaska and Greenland fisheries) Rept. IWC, Special Isusue 4:79-86

[5] Report of the Cultural Anthropology Panel 1982 In  Chairman’s Report, 2008, IWC

[6] Sejersen, F. (2002) ‘Local knowledge, Sustainability and Visionscapes in Greenland’, Department of Eskimology, University of Copenhagen, Denmark

[7] Dahl, Jens (1998). Resource appropriation, territories and social control. I Louis- Jacques Dorais et al. (eds.) Aboriginal Environmental Knowledge in the North (pp.61-80). Laval: GÉTIC

[8] Sejersen, F. (2001) Hunting and Management of Beluga Whales (Delphinapterus leucas) in Greenland: Changing Strategies to Cope with New National and Local Interests’, ARCTIC, VOL. 54, NO. 4 (DECEMBER 2001) P. 431–443

[9] Dahl, J. 1998. Resource appropriation, territories and social control. In: Dorais, L.J., Nagy, M., and Müller-Wille, L., eds. Aboriginal environmental knowledge in the North. Québec: GÉTIC, University of Laval. 61–80.

[10] Dahl. J, (2000). Saqqaq: An Inuit hunting community in the modern world. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

[11] Siku News Accessed on 26th April 2009 at

[12] Nuttal, M. (1994) ‘Greenland: Emergence of an Inuit homeland’ in Minority Rights Group (ed.) Polar Peoples: self-determination and development, London. Minority Rights Publications.

[13] Danish colonization of Greenland began in the 18th century, and Greenland was made an integral part of Denmark in 1953. It joined the European Community (now the EU) with Denmark in 1973, but withdrew in 1985 over a dispute centered on stringent fishing quotas. Greenland was granted self-government in 1979 by the Danish parliament; the law went into effect the following year. Greenland voted in favor of increased self-rule in November 2008, although Denmark continues to exercise control of Greenland’s foreign affairs in consultation with Greenland’s Home Rule Government.

[14] Natalia Loukacheva (2007) writing in ‘The Arctic promise: legal and political autonomy of Greenland and Nunavut’ notes that Denmark in 1953 forcibly relocated twenty-seven Inughuit families from the community of Qaannaq in order to provide further space for the Thule airbase. The local people were neither consulted nor recompensed. In 1999 the Danish High Court upheld the Inuit’s claim for compensation, but it did not allow the hunters to return to their old settlements or regain control of their lost territories. The Supreme Court of Denmark’s ruling on the 28th November 2003 did not acknowledge the Inughuit’s right to return as ‘the land traditionally occupied by the Inuit people has been identified and consists of the entire territory of Greenland’