The week of May 20, a delegation of native Greenlanders descended on the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, advocating for the repeal of a 2009 ban on the import of commercially harvested seal products to Europe.
Since the ban—inspired by the efforts of animal-rights advocacy organizations like Greenpeace—seal pelt exports have dropped 90%. And despite a written exemption for indigenous Inuit hunters, markets across the Arctic, both large-scale commercial and sustainable-use, have crashed, with disastrous effect for Greenland and northern Canada’s coastal Inuit communities.
“You get European tourists up in the Arctic who don’t understand the legislation,” Aaju Peter tells Quartz. Peter is a Greenland-born Inuk (Inuk is the singular form of Inuit) and lawyer who runs a home-based, sealskin garment business out of Toronto. She also advocates for Inuit rights to seal-product commerce and issues related to Arctic waters. “What people don’t understand is that Europeans can buy for their own use,” she explains. “But that doesn’t really matter, because European fashion designers and the rest of the world have stopped using sealskins. The ban crashed the market.”
The remoteness of Inuit lands only exacerbates misunderstanding. “The world doesn’t understand our geography,” she says. “Ten months of the year, it’s all snow and ice. We can’t grow or raise anything.”
Peter recalls the days before the ban fondly: “When the sealskin was legal and the price was high, the hunters could afford to buy gas and ammunition,” she tells Quartz. Hunters had a product to sell (pelts) that doubled as a means of feeding the family—there is as much iron in a palm-sized portion of seal meat as there is in 56 sausages, Peter told Rabble.
Aside from decimating the traditional Inuit economy, Europe’s ban has had a terrible effect on regional marine ecology. “The seal population has grown astronomical,” Peter says. “The numbers, conservatively, are between seven and ten million for harp seals.” As evidence, she notes she was recently invited to a meeting with Danish fishermen currently locked in a fierce competition with the bloated seal population. “The seals are consuming 10 million tons of fish a year,” she says.
Europe has attempted to address seal overpopulation, but their methods have only incensed Peter and her fellow advocates further. “In European states, at the same time as they banned the import of commercially hunted seal products, the member states themselves applied for licenses to cull the number of seals!” she says. “The Europeans can understand [seal hunting] when it starts affecting their own needs of livelihood, for instance their fish stock. They totally ignore it when it is far away in Canada.”
It’s a frustrating hypocrisy—particularly since culls aren’t always carried out in humane ways. Meanwhile, the Inuit have been humanely dispatching seals for centuries. Europeans contracted for culls don’t know how to do it right, Peter says. “When they become pests for Europeans, they can just kill seals any which way they want.”
The European ban on seal products can been traced back to a 1970s campaign carried out by Greenpeace, the international environmentalist and animal-rights advocacy group. Greenpeace disseminated gory photographs of commercial seal hunts in the Canadian arctic to stir outrage—warranted in instances of inhumane dispatching and over-hunting, but not Inuit practices.
Bob Hunter, a co-founder of Greenpeace who spearheaded its anti-seal hunting and anti-whaling campaigns, claimed the organization’s leadership carefully considered the social and economic impacts of its actions, writes Stephen Dale in his 1996 book, McLuhan’s Children: The Greenpeace Message and the Media. But “this was definitely not true of the organization’s supporters,” he noted. “Urban environmentalists—both supporters and some of the leadership—made their decision about the Inuit seal hunt without any knowledge of the Inuit way of life, presumably on the basis of television reports on sealing.”
Famed Inuit leader John Amagoalik, told Dale, “We were having a large meeting in one of our communities, and we invited a spokesman from the Greenpeace organization. One particular Inuk asked the Greenpeacer, ‘If we can’t hunt seals, what are we going to do? How are we going to feed our families?’ And the guy from Greenpeace suggested we should all build greenhouses and grow vegetables. I mean, this was a real insult to our people.”
And yet, much of the organizational philosophies of Greenpeace and similar outfits seem to derive from fetishized understandings of indigenous traditions. It’s “founding myth” recalls a highly generalized Native American legend; appropriative much in the same way your Urban Outfitters designer favors Navajo prints and faux-Hopi ceramic housewares.
Greenpeace misunderstands the diverse nature of relationship between various indigenous nations and the ecosystems they have inhabited for centuries. It renders them monolithic and, adding injury to insult, imposes that ill-conceived monolith back onto indigenous communities with little regard for its economic and environmental costs.
This is what happened in Greenland and the Canadian Arctic. With a few, grainy, black-and-white photographs, Greenpeace nearly annihilated the Inuit way of life. And, for Aaju Peter, the magnitude of damage inflicted isn’t something that can be repaired with mere words.
She refers back to an op-ed written by Greenpeace Canada’s Joanna Kerr in The Nunatsiaq News, published in June 2014. Between environmentalists, it is generally understood to be an acknowledgement of Greenpeace’s role in crashing the Arctic’s seal-product trade. For Inuit advocates, like Peter and Redfern, it is simply too little, too late.
“It’s a good thing they apologized,” Peter admits. “But that is not good enough. We need compensation.”
“I don’t know what form it would take,” she replies when asked if she or other Inuit groups would appeal for formal reparations at some point in the future. “But they have to show that they’re willing to correct the harm that was done. We don’t have the funds, we don’t have enough people to undo the problems caused by others. Those pictures were implanted in peoples’ minds.”