TASIILAQ, Greenland — Russia’s decision to charge dozens of Greenpeace activists with piracy for protesting oil drilling in the Arctic may be making headlines around the world this week.
But before Russian security officials stormed a Greenpeace ship and held its crew at gunpoint, locals here already had a harsh assessment of the international environmental group.
“Murderers,” says one man. “Crazy people.”
As climate change helps thaw Arctic ice, campaign groups are stepping up their efforts to protect the increasingly accessible region from companies and governments keen to exploit its resources.
But in this small hillside town on Greenland’s east coast — where polar bear skins decorate walls and seals are found on dinner plates more often than campaign posters — locals blame Greenpeace for the collapse of the sealskin trade, a valuable source of income.
The organization has become a byword for a global environmental movement described by some here as a threat to their livelihoods and future, especially thanks to earlier missteps by environmental organizations.
“Sometimes we hear on the news we’re killing animals, we’re hunting in a commercial way,” says Harald Maqe, a hunter. “That’s not true. We’re only hunting what we need to feed ourselves and our dogs. We’re not guilty.”
Locals’ antipathy to Greenpeace stems from its famous campaign against Canada’s commercial seal hunts in the 1970s and 1980s. Images of big-eyed baby seals being clubbed to death spread around the world.
The United States banned trade of seal products in 1972, gutting the market for sealskins. In 2009, the European Union banned the trade of all seal products except those hunted by Inuit.
Skins now fetch only about 40 percent of what they did 20 years ago.
Seals are a staple food in Tasiilaq, hunted from the surrounding waters on boats or dogsleds. Selling the hides was a lucrative side income for locals.
“Imagine if the US all of a sudden couldn’t export Ford pick-up trucks because the Canadians messed up,” said Carl-Erik Holm, director of the Ammassalik Museum in Tasiilaq.
Greenpeace now says it regrets having failed to distinguish between commercial and subsistence hunting in its earlier work.
“That had some very unfortunate effects on sealing in these indigenous communities, and that of course has impacted our relationship with these groups a lot,” Arctic campaigner Jon Burgwald said.
Greenlanders’ lives are bound up with nature. That can look very different from what other Western cultures define as environmentalism.
The country’s per capita greenhouse gas emissions are on par with far more developed Western European countries, and surpass those of Germany and Japan.
Animal rights are also defined differently. Animals are viewed as food or tools, both resources to be used prudently. The huskies that pull dogsleds in the winter are fed only every other day in the off-season. In the summer, Tasiilaq’s hills reverberate with the doleful cries of bored and hungry animals.
Change is coming quickly. The massive ice sheet that covers most of Greenland is losing some 140 billion metric tons of ice each year. The Arctic’s summer sea ice is melting even faster than scientists anticipated, and could disappear completely within 40 years, according to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Disastrous as that may be for sea levels, disappearing ice will also make it easier to explore Greenland’s estimated reserves of rare earths and offshore oil and gas.
A semi-autonomous country within Denmark, Greenland assumed greater control of its own affairs in 2009.
Its leaders have looked to exploit the mineral wealth as a way to boost its $2 billion economy and eventually secure independence from Denmark.
Officials haven’t pulled punches when warning international activists to mind their own business on the subject.
In 2010, parliament's then-conservation and environment committee chief Naaja Nathanielsen said the government supported approved exploration drilling in Greenlandic waters. “We are fully aware of the seriousness of the situation and of the risks,” she said. “But in the same breath, I would like to stress that Greenland's development is a matter for Greenland.”
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Viggo Mikaelsen, a full-time hunter and former politician who served a term in Greenland’s senate, is less disparaging of international environmentalists.
“To say I hate them is too strong,” he says. “But I don’t like them.”
He brings up a widely publicized trip former Beatle Paul McCartney made to Canada in 2006 to campaign against commercial seal hunting, saying that the aging rock star’s photo opportunity was an affront to people trying to earn a living in an environment nature has already made plenty harsh.
“The seals have someone powerful speaking for them,” Mikaelsen says. “The Inuit don’t have anybody.”