Wake-up call

Sheila Watt-Cloutier
describes the Inuit fight against chemical pollution that threatens their health and culture

We Inuit are few in numbers – there are 150,000 of us resident in northern Canada, Alaska, Greenland, and Chukotka in the Russian Far East – but we occupy and use millions of square kilometres of land and ocean in the Arctic. Despite rapid social and economic change in the region, ours remains a land-based culture heavily dependent on traditional ‘country food’ primarily marine mammals such as seals, walrus and whales.

In the late 1980s preliminary research in northern Quebec and southern Baffin Island suggested that many Inuit in northern Canada had very high levels of PCBs and DDT in their blood and lipid tissues. Canada’s Northern Contaminants Programme (NCP) – in which Inuit, Dene and Yukon First Nations actively participated – generated considerable data throughout the 1990s and showed that the problem was the result of the long-range transport of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) originally released into the environment in tropical and temperate lands. Once they get to the Arctic, POPs degrade very slowly and bioaccumulate, particularly in the marine food web. We ingest them by eating what we hunt. The 1997 Canadian Arctic Contaminants Assessment Report published by the NCP shows that levels of certain POPs in some Inuit is 10 to 20 times higher than in most temperate regions – with very worrying implications for public health.

This and other scientific data generated in the Arctic, primarily by Canada, supported the case for a global Convention. The 1997 State of the Arctic Environment report, published by the eight-nation Arctic Council, convinced many of the need for global action and equipped Sweden and Canada, in particular, to press UNEP’s Governing Council to sponsor negotiations. Arctic indigenous peoples participated throughout negotiations as a coalition, which included Inuit represented by the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, the Dene Nation and Council for Yukon First Nations. We brought our values and concerns to the attention of decision-makers through comments on the science of POPs and interventions on the Convention floor, in breakout workshops, and through the media. I was the spokesperson for the coalition in all POPs negotiations.

Understanding issues
At the global POPs negotiations in Nairobi, I intervened to help people understand what the levels of contamination found in the Arctic mean for Inuit and for the world:

'Imagine for a moment, if you will, the emotions we now feel; shock, panic, grief, as we discover that the food – which for generations nourished us and keeps us whole physically and spiritually – is now poisoning us. You go to the supermarket for food. We go out on the land to hunt, fish, trap, and gather. The environment is our supermarket.

'As we put our babies to our breasts, we feed them a noxious chemical cocktail that foreshadows neurological disorders, cancers, kidney failure, reproductive dysfunction. That Inuit mothers – far from areas where POPs are manufactured and used – have to think twice before breast feeding their infants is surely a wake-up call to the world.’

At all the negotiations we politely but firmly reminded delegates that to us, POPs are a matter of culture and public health as well as of environmental security. We also suggested that Inuit were, in effect, indicators of the world’s health – canaries in the mine.
The mainstream media know little about the Arctic
We recommended that the Convention commit to eliminating, rather than managing, the worst POPs; that it be comprehensive and science-driven; and that implementation by states be verifiable. We wanted a Convention that would make a difference over the long term – a Convention with teeth. Anything less would not guarantee our health and cultural survival.

We learned a great deal during the negotiations. Initially, states and non-governmental organizations were highly ignorant of our situation in the Arctic and of us as a people. Over time this changed, largely as a result of our repeated interventions. Eventually, most states became sympathetic to our plight and were anxious to assist, notwithstanding the presence of lobbyists from the chemical industry. UNEP itself – and particularly Executive Director Klaus Toepfer – took every available opportunity to remind delegates of the need to address our concerns.

A carving of an Inuit mother and child, which I presented to Klaus in Nairobi, became the ‘conscience’ of negotiations, sitting on the chair’s table at every session. Many negotiators took me to one side and said how pleased they were that this carving was the central image on the UNEP POPs web site. Host governments provided opportunities for us to illustrate the cultural connections between POPs, country food, and our way of life. The Government of Germany, for example, brought a well-known group of Canadian Inuit traditional dancers and singers to perform in front of negotiators in Bonn. This attracted very useful media and political attention. It meant much to me that my daughter was one of the performers, showing, celebrating and defending her culture.

The mainstream media know little about the Arctic. Nevertheless, they listened to what we said and quite accurately reported our case and concerns. The BBC, for example, came to Iqaluit, capital of Nunavut, to follow up early reports. We took their Washington-based correspondent seal hunting. He soon understood the conceptual connections we were pressing upon negotiators in the cavernous meeting rooms. Environmental organizations used their media savvy and connections to reinforce our advocacy.

Moral high ground
Our Inuit and Arctic perspectives cut across established regional negotiating groupings. We appealed to all, equally, and tried to do so from the ‘moral high ground’. Just as important, we refused to play ‘victim’ a role that some governments encouraged us to assume. When measures to control the use of DDT became controversial and pitted North against South, we stated clearly that Inuit would refuse to be party to an agreement that threatened the health of others. Having been decimated by smallpox and other introduced diseases in the early years of the 20th century, we sympathized acutely with those in tropical lands losing thousands of people per year to malaria.

We are only 150,000 people, but POPs threaten our very cultural existence. As a result, we insisted on a Convention that would address the public health concerns of mothers in all parts of the globe. Our advocacy was from the heart as well as the mind, but we avoided the often shrill politics of blaming. The Inuit way is to engage in the politics of influence not the politics of protest.

Establishing funds
From the beginning of negotiations it was clear that money would be needed to implement obligations. We took three financially related initiatives. First, we pressed the Government of Canada, with whom we have close and cordial links, to announce funding to support implementation of the POPs Convention. Canada announced a $20 million contribution at the penultimate negotiations in Bonn, and this money is now held in a trust fund at the World Bank.

Second, we pressed the Government of Canada and all Arctic governments to propose new institutions to work with developing countries to carry out remediation projects and to monitor implementation. In this way we contributed significantly to acceptance of the Capacity Assistance Network (CAN) eventually included in the Convention.

Finally, and at the request of the Secretariat of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) we – with the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North and the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme of the Arctic Council – prepared a research programme to assess levels of POPs in country food in Arctic Russia. This was eventually funded by GEF, six of the Arctic states and Canadian foundations, and was repeatedly announced during negotiations.
POPs threaten our very cultural existence
On 23 May 2001, representatives of most of the world’s governments met in Stockholm to sign the Convention. This is important as an attempt to rid the world of key toxic chemicals, phasing out and/or banning the use and generation of selected POPs, with the prospect of adding more substances in the future. But it is also unique for other reasons. While declaring its objective ‘to protect human health and the environment from POPs’ the preamble, unusually and aptly, singles out indigenous peoples and the Arctic.

It says it: ‘Acknowledges, that the Arctic ecosystems and indigenous communities are particularly at risk because of the biomagnification of persistent organic pollutants and that contamination of their traditional foods is a public health issue.’

Many countries have committed to ratifying it before the World Summit on Sustainable Development scheduled for Johannesburg in September 2002.

Uplifting acknowledgement
At the signing in Stockholm, Klaus Toepfer thanked us for our efforts in support of a global POPs Convention. He acknowledged that we had helped. This was important and uplifting. Inuit have come a long way in a short time.

Robert Peary, the famous American Polar explorer once said of Inuit: ‘Of what value to the world are these people? They have no culture to speak of, no written language. They value life only as a fox or a wolf.’

We have shown the world our value and we hope and intend to do so again on other global issues of importance in the Arctic. We are able to do this because we can draw on our rich and diverse cultural heritage. Hunting, fishing, and trapping continue to provide us with lessons of great relevance. We remain guardians of the natural environment. As we continue to navigate rapid social change it seems highly appropriate that Inuit provide advice to the world on issues that affect the health of our planet

Sheila Watt-Cloutier is President of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference Canada.

PHOTOGRAPH: Barbara Willard/UNEP/Topham

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Open doors | Progress and possibilities | A further step | Achieving the vision | Wake-up call | Special feature: Security in a shrinking world | 2001 UNEP Sasakawa Environment Prize | Competition | Global housekeeping | Disrupting life’s messages | Ubiquitous and dangerous | Briefing: Much done, much still to do | Briefing: Getting on top of the POPs | Briefing: First line of defence | Reversing the burden of proof

Complementary articles in other issues:
Theo Colborn: Restoring children's birthrights (Chemicals) 1997
Anita Roddick: Multi-local business (Beyond 2000) 2000
AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Population, waste and chemicals,
Polar Regions