Dominica: A Whale of A Pride

March 29, 2009 | By | Filed Under Features / Columnists, Ronald Sanders 

By Sir Ronald Sanders

It’s not often that the leader of a small country is bold enough to resist the desires of larger or richer countries. But, Dominica’s Prime Minister, Roosevelt Skerrit, did just that on March 23rd.
Speaking in Dominica’s Capital, Roseau, at the opening of an Environmental Conference entitled, “International Ocean Life Symposium”, the Prime Minister declared that his government will no longer be supporting the whale-killing position of the Japanese government in the International Whaling Commission (IWC). He said that his government will be acting in his country’s “national interest”.

For several years now, it has been alleged that several Caribbean countries – the members of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) and Suriname – have been supporting Japan at the IWC because the Japanese Whaling Association (JWA) provided them with fish refrigeration facilities. It has also been claimed in British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) programmes that the JWA paid the IWC membership fees for some of these countries as well as the cost of their delegations’ attendance.

These claims were upheld in Dominica by environmentalists who have followed closely the country’s participation in IWC meetings. Among these persons is a former Environment Minister of a Dominica government, Atherton Martin, who resigned in 2000 in protest over the issue.
In the same year, a, senior official of the Fisheries Agency of Japan, Maseyuku Komatsu, stated on Australian television that a number of countries have accepted aid in return for backing Japan’s efforts to get commercial whaling restarted and described aid as “a major tool”.
Komatsu’s remark that aid “is a major tool” is instructive. That is a reality with which small countries have to contend.

The less well-off the country is, the more vulnerable it is to pressures and trade-offs from donor nations. In the case of Dominica, it is the least well-off of the OECS countries, even though it is a breathtakingly beautiful island, relatively unspoilt, lush, green and diverse in its natural attractions such as rain forests, revitalizing sulphur springs, waterfalls and original people in their traditional habitat.
The island lost its preferential market in the European Union (EU) for its vital banana exporting industry, compliments of a challenge at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) by the US government and several Latin American nations whose competing banana industry was owned by US-based corporations that contributed campaign financing to President Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party.
Dominica’s already impoverished circumstances simply grew worse. It is, therefore, easy to appreciate why any Dominica government might look favourably on support for any large country’s position if aid is given as a benefit of such support.

A Japanese Associate Professor, arguing on the JWA platform, says: “Many of the countries supporting Japan are developing countries. They are seeking their own food in the sea and are trying to earn foreign currency through exports of marine products. They find themselves in a position where they should firmly oppose the moves to hamper the sustainable development of their resources.” This argument falls down because, apart from the tiny community on the island of Bequia in St Vincent and the Grenadines, whale meat is not part of the Caribbean diet.

Further, while it would be beneficial if small Caribbean countries could indeed export their marine products, they lack both the commercial facilities and the transportation for large exports. Many of the refrigeration facilities they have received from the Japanese are even now rusting along many shore lines. Then, of course, there is the reality that huge commercial trawlers, including from Japan, have been sucking up fish stocks for years.
In his presentation to the Dominica Conference on March 23rd, Prime Minister Skerrit recalled that last year his government “had taken a very bold decision after many decades of supporting the whaling issue to steer clear of voting for whaling” and he emphasised to the gathering that his government would not renege on that commitment.

Underscoring the commitment, the Minister of Legal Affairs and Tourism, Ian Douglas, reconfirmed his government’s whale conservation policy to the Conference on the same day that the Dominica government signed an agreement with Japan to fund another fisheries complex in the town of Portsmouth.
The Conference was organised by the Eastern Caribbean Coalition for Environmental Awareness (ECCEA) and the Pew Environment Group, in coordination with the Caribbean Environment Programme of the United Nations Environment Programme. Its attendees gave Skerrit a standing ovation, I suspect as much over the delight they felt at his declared commitment as over their appreciation that he gave it at the price of some portion of aid – however small – to his country.

Skerrit said that he is acting in “the national interest”. Clearly, he believes that Dominica’s interest does not coincide with Japan’s on this issue. He has good reason for that belief. Dominica promotes itself as “the nature isle” – the environment, including the sea and all that it possesses, is what the island has to offer to the tourist industry it’s trying to develop.
It would be incongruous if the island held itself out to be environmentally correct at home, yet supported whale-killing abroad. It certainly would not gain and retain the support of the influential international environmental groups that applauded him so fully when he committed his government not to support whaling in the future.

Many of the groups recognise that their support has to be translated into practical action. The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) has already given pragmatic support to a group called “Carib Whale”. Members of the group in the Windward Islands, including Dominica, now operate whale-watching operations for tourists earning about US$22 million a year for the four countries involved.
Governments also have to help. Some governments have started. The Brazilian Government will open an Embassy in Dominica and has pledged to support the island as a tourist destination for Brazilians. Under the Tourism Sector Development Programme, a two-year programme financed under the EU’s Special Framework of Assistance, US$3.87 million has been pledged for the development of rural tourism, linkages with agriculture and increased destination marketing.

But more has to be done. The international financial institutions have to step up the plate to provide greater assistance with far less onerous conditionalities to allow Dominica to stand prouder than it does now in declaring its independent position on whaling.
(The writer is a Consultant and former Caribbean diplomat)
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