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Save the Caribbean's standing: Sink the yen for whales

Sir Ronald Sanders

Sunday, May 02, 2010    

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"... He that filches from me my good name

Robs me of that which not enriches him,

And makes me poor indeed"

-- Shakespeare, Othello

SEVERAL Caribbean countries could be stigmatised globally if they support a proposition to topple the global ban on commercial whaling and legitimise the heinous slaughter of these intelligent mammals.

This proposition is being advanced by the chair and vice chair of the 88-nation International Whaling Commission (IWC), a body whose governing Convention provides for the proper conservation of whale stocks and the complete protection of certain species as well as designating specified areas as whale sanctuaries.

Most of what constitutes the proposition was developed by 12 governments in a small working group, and it is being touted by the chair and vice chair as a basis for additional negotiations between now and an IWC meeting to be held in Morocco in June.

No member government of the IWC has endorsed the proposition to date, but some governments have forcefully stated their objection to it, among them: Mexico, Australia, New Zealand and Britain. It is expected that India, South Africa and Brazil will also oppose the proposition.

Caribbean countries that are members of the IWC -- the six independent members of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) and Suriname -- could be very instrumental in either quashing it or validating it.

If the proposition is endorsed, it would: overturn the global ban on commercial whaling and allow hunting in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary around Antarctica; approve the killing of whales for commercial purposes by Japan around Antarctica and in the North Pacific; and allow continuing whaling by Iceland and Norway in violation of long-agreed scientific procedures and the global whaling ban.

The Caribbean nations have absolutely nothing politically, or in orthodox material terms, to gain by helping to support the proposition; they have much more to lose.

Apart from Bequia, one of the tiny islands of St Vincent and the Grenadines (about which, more later), Caribbean people do not eat whale meat, but many of the islands have a vibrant whale-watching industry from which they derive revenue and jobs.

More importantly, the Caribbean sells itself to the global tourism market as environmentally friendly and protective of natural wildlife -- an assault on this latter reputation by tourism groups, who are increasingly demanding higher environmental standards, could damage the region's already fragile tourism industry.

It has to be recalled that it is only inside the Caribbean that a differentiation is made between the countries that reside in it. To the North American and European tourists, the Caribbean is one place. The perception of the area overall can affect countries individually.

It is claimed that Japan pays the IWC membership fees for several of the Caribbean countries, and also finances the participation of their delegations who have become the most vocal supporters of Japan's drive for commercial whaling.

In April 2002, the then accountant general of Grenada wrote in a letter (later made public): "Contributions from the Government of Japan to the Government of Grenada were not received for the International Whaling Commission and as such were not reflected in the said accounts for the years 1998 and 1999. However, our internal audit revealed that contributions were received for all other years prior to and following 1998 and 1999. Moreover, the Japanese have confirmed that they made contributions to the Government of Grenada for the specified periods."

Japan has taken advantage of the economic vulnerability of these small and needy countries to capture their votes. In return for support at the IWC, Japan has provided fish refrigeration facilities in all the independent OECS countries which, while opened with great fanfare and flourish as a boon to local fishermen, are now mostly disused or used for other purposes. In some countries, they have become known as the local "ice house".

But, when the economics of the relationship with Japan is analysed, these Caribbean countries come out worse. Japan has a massive annual balance of trade surplus with each of them -- they are ready markets for Japan's motor vehicles, television sets, radios, computers, printers, cameras, agricultural equipment and a host of other goods. In turn, Japan's purchases from these countries, where such purchases exist, are negligible.

To say that the latest proposition from the IWC chairs to overturn the ban on commercial whaling has caused outrage around the world would be to put the matter mildly.

Governments, non-governmental organisations, environmental groups and ordinary people have written letters, signed petitions, organised demonstrations, created blogs on the Internet and generally agitated against what they rightly regard as an activity that is not only unnecessary, but is cruel and barbaric.

The human population of the world does not depend on whale meat to live; in fact, including a small number of aboriginal peoples -- and an elite group in Japan -- whale meat is eaten by only a tiny fraction of the global population.

The three remaining countries in the world that flout the spirit of the IWC rules and decisions in respect of commercial whaling are Iceland, Japan and Norway.

In the Caribbean, apart from Bequia, any ancient hunting of whales has long since been abandoned, and there is certainly no tradition of eating whale meat in the region. The primitive process of hunting whales off Bequia is cruel, verging on the barbaric, and does nothing to promote the island's reputation as a premier residential tourist destination. It has to be assumed that this activity will soon be regulated by the minister who has power to do so under the law.

The Caribbean governments involved in this matter should join progressive governments around the world by formally declaring their opposition to the proposition long before the IWC meeting in June, and, if they do attend, by vigorously opposing it then.

Better still, given the difficult financial circumstances confronting each of them, Caribbean countries can validly stay away from this meeting, which would be costly to attend in distant Morocco, and which has no benefit for them. In that way, they could save their own standing with the vast majority of public opinion while sinking the yen for whales.

Othello's exclamation above began:

"Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,

Is the immediate jewel of their souls".

In this matter of the slaughter of the world's whales, the people of the OECS countries and Suriname would not want the jewel of their souls tarnished with 'thirty pieces' of yen. But it could happen to their detriment unless governments remove their countries from the fray.

Responses and previous commentaries at: www.sirronaldsanders.com

Sir Ronald Sanders is a consultant and former Caribbean diplomat.

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