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Obstacles for sustainable development at village level - West Greenland

by Ole Hertz

As part of a larger research project concerning the conditions for sustainable industrial development in the Arctic, this article identifies some of the obstacles inhibiting a sustainable development as seen from the village level. The majority of the information is from fieldwork in the village Ikerasaarsuk, located on the West Coast of Greenland. The fieldwork began in 1971-72, then again 1989 and 1996-97.
The municipality of Kangaatsiaq
The municipality of Kangaatsiaq is situated south of Disko Bay on the West Coast of Greenland. The municipality as a whole covers 43.500 km2, of which 10.000 km2 is covered by the Inland ice. Bays and fjords cover 5.500 km2. Kangaatsiaq consists of several small and large islands and peninsulas with deep fjords reaching the Inland Ice. The sea is often covered by ice from November to May, but will vary from year to year.
In 1996, 1.518 people was living in the five inhabited places within the municipality. The area is known to have rich wildlife made up of fish, birds, seals, whales and caribou. The main occupation in this low-income area is fishing and hunting.
The village Ikerasaarsuk
As of 1996, 98 people were living in Ikerasaarsuk. This village is situated on a steep cliff with a small flat area below. The 26 new painted living houses are seen from a long distance when approaching by boat, skidoo or dog sledge. The largest buildings in the village are the KNI shop, the school, the fish salting and icing house and the electricity and freshwater plant. This was not the view some years ago!
The history
In 1971, only 57 people lived in Ikerasaarsuk. There were 7 homemade small wooden houses isolated by turf and heather. There was a little private shop, where it sometimes was possible to buy Greenland coal, matches, petrol, kerosene, sugar, biscuits, tobacco, flour, fishing hooks and cartridges. The only investments made by the authorities were a cement pier (4x4 m) with a hand driven crane and a wood house for wash and salting of codfish built by Royal Greenland Trade. At the time, the fish were plenty and the industry was believed to be economic foundation for Greenland. However, when the cod disappeared during the late 1980's and early 1990's, the village did not have economic interest any more. A little house used for school and church was also present. A teacher without formal training educated the children. As compensation for the lack of training from books, the children got a fundamental knowledge in the daily industrious activities of the village. The houses were heated with iron stoves by coal and turf. No electricity, radio or telephone connections were existing. In that time, it was decided by the Greenland and Danish politicians, that thevillage should be closed down and the inhabitants should move to other bigger places in the open water areas on the West Coast, where they could work in the fishing industries.
Some years earlier the official plan was to close down the whole municipality, but the people protested and the plans were changed. However, the people of Ikerasaarsuk did not follow this plan either. They stayed in spite of being denied all economic support from the authorities. The inhabitants could not find any reason to leave their settlement, which had plenty of surrounding resources for a comfortable living. People were aware of social problems in the towns and problems with over-fished fishing grounds and disturbed hunting areas. In Ikerasaarsuk, there were no big alcohol problems, no violence and no locked doors.
The people behind the concentration plan thought they were helping the village people by making them move. They had estimated from the amount of fish sold to KGH that the household income was very low. However, the research later revealed that the real incomes were 10 times larger due to selling smoked arctic char and caribou meat in the towns - an activity not registered anywhere. Actually the village people were rather content with their life, but wished for better education for the children and enhanced possibilities for selling their fish. (This was only possible 3 month in a year). Of cause it was an advance for KGH to concentrate people for working in the new fishing industries and on the new trawlers, and may be it was cheaper with one big school instead of all the small village schools but in connection with energy consumption, resource use and wildlife disturbance it was a bad idea to concentrate people in an area where all resources were spread. In those days, a distinct thrift vise and inventiveness in connection with fishing and hunting gear was present. Long lines were made from old trawls found on the rocks along the sea. Chains and shark hooks were made from old nails, sewing repaired cracked plastic buckets, and spare parts to outboard motors were made from bone and seal skin. From time to time different perfumes were added to bait to see if it could attract more fish.
Ecological adaptation
The foundation for existing in Ikerasaarsuk has always been the biological resources - fish, birds, seals, whales and caribou. Unfortunately, these resources could not be breed. As a result, the use has to adapt to the amount and type of resource, and it is a sensible balance not to overuse. For instance, a group of 50 beluga in theory only has an increase of 4 calf a year. It means that if more than 4 whales are hunted, less whales are available next season. (In reality it depends on if males or females are hunted etc. but the example illustrates the sensibility for over hunt). (Breton & Smith: Studying and Managing Arctic Seals and Whales. Canada 1984).
Other types of prey like the ring and harbor seals are less sensitive and abundant in numbers. But it is typical for many Arctic animal populations that they periodically change in numbers. Many species are only in the area for a few months a year or only pass on their way north or south. In the traditional Inuit ecological strategy it is affected to adapt to these changing availability of animals. This has been done by moving after the animals from season to season, and by using many different species substituting each other. First in the summer people moved out in tents for fishing cape-line and hunted whales, seals and birds. While in the autumn, they traveled long distances by boat to reach the caribou hunting places near the Inland Ice. Later they hunted seals, whales and birds again and in the beginning of the winter net were put out to hunt passing beluga in special places. In the winter people stayed where the ring seal hunt from ice was best and close to open water where seabirds and young seals were over wintering. During the time, people became more sedentary, in connection with school building, and the emergence of motorboats and outboard motors made it possible to reach most hunting places from the permanent settlement, and movement of the whole household was not necessary any more.
In 1971, people in Ikerasaarsuk spent most of their summer fishing wolfish close to the village, but all would leave for spring camps for fishing cape-line, and nearly all participated in the caribou hunt in the autumn. During any given year, 72 different species of animals were used some only for sledge dog feeding, other had both economic and nutritional value. The most important species were cape-line, wolfish, arctic char, ring seal, harp seal, beluga, caribou, eider, and murres.
It was possible to fish plenty of Greenland halibuts, but they could not be sold and were therefore mainly used as dog food. Different species had changing importance. When the cod disappeared, people concentrated more on caribou hunting. When the salmons disappeared, nets were used for catching seals. When the scrimp fishery in 1997 was to small, they changed to crab fishing.
The adaptability of the people allowed them to survive.
In the previous hunger periods, the reason was typically bad weather or bad ice, which would prevent the hunters from reaching their prey, not because there was no prey. Social rules concerning division of the catch of whales, walrus and hooded seal distributed the resources between people. Every time a hunter returned with a seal, it was divided in parts matching to the number of people in each of the seven households, and then given away. This system was impossible to follow in the bigger places, and people in the village were aware of that.
The development to present time
In the beginning of the 1970's, the movement of people from the villages had created unexpected problems in the towns. The policy was changing and investments and building in the villages started to resist the depopulation. This changing policy, the strong village population and the information about the real living conditions were the reason that Ikerasaarsuk, the first village outside the real hunting districts, was givengovernment supported houses. These houses were bought for ca 10.000 DKK = 1.000 GB (10% of the real value of the materials) but on the condition that the owner had to build the house himself. The necessary tools and consultant assistance was given for free. Of the present living houses in the village, 23 of the 26 were made in this way. They are made from
plywood and had good insulation and are heated with oil in small ship stoves. Later, an electricity and freshwater plant were built, followed by a municipality office, a health care clinic, oil and gasoline tanks, ice machinery and cooling store for fish, two private kiosks, a shop selling for ca 3 mio., DKK a year, a school with three local and two Danish teachers. By 1977, every house had a television and all but one had a telephone.
An assembly house was mowed from a deserted village and used for dance and bingo. The municipality and the Greenland Home Rule paid the investments. Today, dog sleds and skidoos are used for transport in the winter and motorboats, fishing vessels and outboard motorboats are used in the ice-free periods. Two bigger fishing vessels are used for crab fishery and caribou hunting. There was also huge investment made in fishing and hunting gear, equipment for the houses, imported food and a sumptuous system of gift giving. The meat giving is not systematically in use any more, but the rules for dividing bigger animals are in function. The former spring camp cape-line fishery with ketches was replaced by a single trawl catch by one of the vessels, given free to people.
Today the main income is from hunting and fishing products, such as arctic char, cod fish, arctic cod, seal skin and caribou meat. From year to year, income can also be created from walrus and whales. In most households, the families try to have at least one person with a steady salary to secure a constant stream of cash flow. It typically comes from work in the fish house, taking of the old and young, municipality council membership, teaching, work in the shop etc. Much like the situation 26 years ago, a great part (sometimes the main part) of the income comes from non registered sale of fish and meat in the towns.
Obstacles for a sustainable industrial development
It is possible to say, that the inhabitants of Ikerasaarsuk in a way did find a reasonably sustainable way of using their resources. They resisted being moved away from their resources, yet they could not prevent an increasing use of the resources due to a demand for money and an increasing population. In order to increase the income, hunting and fishing activities had to increase.
onsequently, more fuel and expensive equipment had to be used creating a growing competition between the fishermen and hunters using the area. The system (or the ecological strategy) is not as flexible as before. Law due to other nation's misuse now protects many of the species that were available before. Other species are protected as a result of local misuse. The important caribou hunt is restricted due to the low population (One hunter is allowed to hunt only one caribou a year). Shrimp fishing vessels spoils the local stock of Greenland halibut. Additionally, the wolf fish have disappeared. Nobody knows how many crabs were possible to catch before the stock is diminished too.
The low prices paid to the fishermen by Royal Greenland - 30 - 60% lower than prices in Denmark and Canada - is forcing people to catch greater amounts of fish and marine mammals. The pressure on catching whales has increased due to the anti seal hunt campaigns and import restrictions in the industrial countries. In periods where this champagnes have created low sealskin prices, the hunters have concentrated more on haling. This is seen as an ecologically unlucky solution, because the whales are much more sensitive for a growing hunt than the very plenty ring and harp seals.
The problems will continue if the campaigns in EU and USA against using traps include the Greenland ice net. These nets are the most vital way for locals to catch seals. In a few years, the smaller whales, such as beluga and narwhals, will be quoted like that of the big whales. Then it will be real difficult.
It is a problem to find a sustainable use of the biological resources creating sustainability where the same amount of resources will be left for future generations. Yet, it is possible to learn from the traditional experiences in the hunting and fishing culture of the Inuit.
However, the issue is whether the village people will be allowed to continue their way of life.
It is a question if anybody in the future is interested in maintenance of the Greenland villages, except the village population them self.
Royal Greenland, who is buying nearly all village products, gets a higher export price from their classified products caught by the Home Rule owned trawlers. As seen from their side, it would be easier without the products from the villages and small fishermen in the towns.
But if the villages get a chance to survive, it could show that they are the most sustainable in the long run than thought. A better use of fishing and hunting products by local refinement could create more money from the same amount of resources. New resources, products and markets could be found and the rising interest for "Ecological fish" or fish caught in a sustainable way can give the products from the villages a new chance. The fishery with small vessels is less fuel demanding/ kg fish than the fishery with big trawlers, as well as less damaging for the stocks of fish. The village products can be labeled "Ecological Fish", that is not possible with the products from the trawlers.