Monday, June 19, 2006

Blogging again

Upon returning from holiday, I planned to write a bit about Kiribati, the Pacific island nation where I've done some field work, and source of the word "maribo". It turns out, the forgotten country has actually been in the news.

You may have come across headlines about an international vote on commercial whaling (here's a whale photo I shot years ago while trying to block out the sounds of all the sick people on the boat). At the International Whaling Commission annual meeting this weekend, a narrow majority of 70 member nations led by Japan voted to overturn the 20 year old ban on commerical whaling. That is well short of the two-thirds majority necessary to overturn the ban (which explains the confusing headlines) but represents a big shift from the past.

Under the ban, catching whales is permitted only for some indigenous peoples in the Arctic and for "scientific research". Three countries argure that some whale populations (like the minke) have been recovering defy the ban: Norway, which ignores the ban entirely, and Japan and Iceland, which use the research loophole to continue whaling. Japan is now pushing the questionable argument that whale numbers have recovered so much that commerical whaling is necessary to maintain fish stocks.

Here's where Kiribati comes in. It is one of a few Pacific island nations, also including Tuvalu and the Solomon Islands, to join the IWC in recent years and support Japan's effort to end the ban. People are suspicious the votes of these poor nations are being "bought".

One of the things a visitor to the western Pacific island nations, like Kiribati, will notice is the many Japanese and Taiwanese funded development projects. Kiribati covers a huge swath of the Pacific and lots of prime fishing grounds; it is also a very poor country, per capita GDP of around $700/person. Many have been suspicious that a bit of financial assistance can go a long way to securing fishing rights. Why Taiwan? Take a look at the list of countries that recognize Taiwan as an independent nation. It is as bizarre as the coalition of the willing.

Under the IWC, each member nation gets one vote, regardless of size of the country or number of inhabitants. So if you are Japan, the sparsely populated island countries like Kiribati and Tuvalu seem like ideal places to search for a vote, no?

Tetabo Nakara, the Kiribati Fisheries Minister and a pretty nice guy, denies the accusation that his country's vote was bought. Sure, no one really believes there was a straight-up bribe. But it is very likely that and other nations like Tuvalu and the Solomons were swayed by trust in Japan, derived in large part from the financial aid, and the Japanese argument that the ban on whaling threatens fish stocks.

I'm not a whale ecologist or expert. I can't tell you whether or not there are some legitimate scientific arguments in support of at least limited whaling. I can tell you, though, that this vote does not look so clean.

No comments: