Remarks on Greenpeace and Clyde River in The Arctic Journal

Recently, journalist Kevin McGwin of Greenland’s The Arctic Journal asked me to comment on the budding relationship between Greenpeace and the Inuit community of Clyde River in Nunavut.  Their common cause against seismic exploration in Baffin Bay has caused some surprise, not least because Greenpeace’s reputation amongst Inuit has scraped rock-bottom since the anti-sealing protests of the 1970s and 1980s decimated the traditional Inuit hunting economy.

Readers of this blog know that I’ve criticised Greenpeace in more than one column for continuing to treat the Arctic as an empty wilderness rather than an indigenous homeland — a criticism that I developed in detail in my lecture at the University of Chichester earlier this year.  But as a general rule, collaboration is better than conflict — and the fledging alliance between Greenpeace and Clyde River deserves real consideration in a separate post.  For now, I’ll let my remarks as printed yesterday stand on their own:

Although it raised eyebrows when the people of Clyde River reached out for help, Greenpeace and Inuit communities, observers point out, do have common interests. And if they can get over their differences, reckons Anthony Speca, the managing principal of Polar Aspect, a consultancy, they could form a powerful partnership at a time when the Arctic is opening up to development.

“On this particular issue, it’s hard to imagine a better ally for the Inuit of Clyde River than Greenpeace,” he says. “They have a recognised brand and people listen to them.”

But by differences, Speca isn’t just referring to the seal hunt. For while the two groups do have a common concern when it comes to testing in Baffin Bay, in other areas, the situation is less clear-cut.

If the relationship is to go further, both Greenpeace and Inuit groups still have work to do, Speca argues.

For the Inuit, that means setting a clear boundary for Greenpeace’s involvement in their fights and making sure that it is the communities that are controlling the message.

“Inuit groups don’t want to get in a situation where they let Greenpeace speak for them. They may do well to ally with Greenpeace, but they should be a wary ally,” Speca says.

Greenpeace, on the other hand, needs to be upfront with the Inuit and the broader public about whether it is standing for Inuit rights or against Arctic development, and what would happen if the two interests come into conflict.

“Yes, Greenpeace have apologised [for the consequences of the anti-sealing protests of the 1970s and 1980s], but even so they have quite recently come into conflict with Inuit on development issues, which raises questions about their motivations.”

As an example of the kind of issue a Greenland-Inuit partnership will have to work out, Speca points to oil drilling in Greenland. There, Greenpeace invoked the wrath of Kuupik Kleist, the country’s elected leader from 2009 to 2013 and an Inuk, when it attempted to blockade oil drilling off the country’s coasts in both 2010 and 2011.

Greenpeace has argued that one of its reasons for opposing seismic testing in the Canadian Baffin Bay is because the federal government lacks the “free, prior and informed consent” of the communities that stand to be affected. But in Greenland, the drills Greenpeace was protesting against were fully sanctioned by that country’s Inuit-led government.

Contradictions like that, Speca says, need to be resolved before Inuit will truly feel at ease working with Greenpeace.

“In order for this relationship to work, then Greenpeace have to take very serious account of Inuit rights. If Inuit wish to support oil development, as they apparently did in Greenland, then Greenpeace must accord that wish the same respect that they now accord Clyde River’s wish to withhold support.”

In order for that to happen, Greenpeace would need to change its mind-set and be ready to accept a level of commercial activity in the Arctic if the Inuit support it and if it is carried out responsibly. Speca doubts that will happen.

For more, including comments from Greenpeace, read McGwin’s full article, “Greenpeace in the Arctic: A sometime friend” on the website of The Arctic Journal.

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