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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Norway's Whaling Woes

Air Date: Week of

Simon Dring reports on Norway's recent decision to resume hunting minke whales, in defiance of a moratorium by the International Whaling Commission. Most Norwegians, including some environmentalists, see little problem with a limited harvest from the whale's stable population. However, Greenpeace says it sets a dangerous precedent for whales everywhere . . . and that Norway's other claims to environmental awareness are hypocritical.


CURWOOD: While Norway and the Olympic Committee work to have greener games, the Norwegian government is under a siege of sorts. Frustrated by the International Whaling Commission's failure to meet a 1990 deadline to evaluate the sizable population of minke whales, the Norwegians decided to go ahead on their own and resume whaling, in defiance of the IWC ban. Now with the Olympics bringing the world spotlight their way, most Norwegians, including many environmentalists, are trying to convince others that they are not environmental hypocrites. In the first of two reports on the Norwegian side of the whaling debate, Simon Dring has our story.

(Sound of sawing and hammering)

DRING: There's a lot of trolls and things prancing around to some rather strange music up in the snow-covered hills near Lillehammer these days. Sliding down the icy slopes of the ski jumps and appearing out of holes in the ground. More than 2,000 soldiers, dancers, and athletes are getting down to some serious training for the costume folk extravaganza planned for the start of the Winter Olympics. But don't worry, flower lovers, nothing's going to get trampled underfoot. The rare blue anemones that blossom here in the spring have all been moved. As one would expect, the Norwegians are being very thorough and very green about their games.

(Cross fade music/feet with hammering/sawing under)

KJELLAND: What we like to do is to add a new dimension to the Olympic Games. We wanted to be sports, culture, and environment.

DRING: Kathrine Kjelland of the Olympic Organizing Committee emphasizes that even with 3,000,000 visitors and more than 20,000 tons of waste, it will be possible to stage a reasonably green Olympics. Hard to imagine in a one-elk town like Lillehammer. But in order to preserve the sweep of the Alpine landscape here, the ice hockey rink, for example, has been carved out of the inside of a mountain. And even Coca-Cola has been persuaded to switch from glitzy red neon to more modest, wooden signs. This is the same country that hunts the minke whale?

(Sounds of Olympic venue restaurant)

NORWEGIAN JOURNALIST: It's silly of a nation like ours to stand up against the entire world and make ourselves so unpopular. If all the other nations of the world say don't kill the whales, we should say all right, we won't kill the whales.

DRING: It's a controversial subject, and one that often comes up over lunch among the journalists and eagle-eyed ecologists keeping watch on the Games. While there have been threats of protest by the anti-whalers, all from outside Norway, most Norwegians in fact support the idea of limited commercial whaling, and would agree with Kare Olerud, from the Society for the Conservation of Nature, Norway's biggest environment group.

OLERUD: If you look at the actual situation of minke whaling in Norway today, if we judge it from a scientific angle and try to be objective and not let emotions rule, we find no environmental reasons to object to the level of whaling actually done today.

DRING: They don't serve whale meat in this Olympic restaurant, but they do have reindeer steak: choice cuts from an animal some would say is just as wide-eyed and cuddly as the whales. And herein lies the nub of the pro-whaling argument. The whale should not be treated as a sacred cow. And if there's enough minke in the northeast Atlantic, estimates are more than 87,000, then why can't they be hunted in sustainable numbers?

(Sound of phone ringing; voice answers: "Greenpeace...")

DRING: Greenpeace is the lone voice of protest among environmental groups in Norway. But abroad, it's the leader of many. Ingrid Berthinussen in the Greenpeace office in Oslo says that central to their argument is fear of the slippery slope. The belief that to allow even commercial hunting of minke would eventually undermine the ability of the International Whaling Commission, the IWC, to protect any of the world's whales. But why should we care so much?

BERTHINUSSEN: I think we should, we should care so much because these are the species on Earth that have been formed, and hunted down one by one, species by species. And the minke whales are the last healthy population. I mean, even this, this minke world population that the Norwegians are hunting, has declined by 50% at least.

DRING: Greenpeace, whose campaign is aimed at ending all whale hunting, says Norway's much-publicized plans for the Olympics are little more than government hypocrisy: a green smokescreen. But it's backed away from the idea of demonstrating at the Winter Games, concentrating instead on taking action focused on Norway itself. For example, their boycott of Norwegian exports has, they claim, already cost the country more than $67 million. Now, they plan to step up their protests.

BERTHINUSSEN: You already see, in the U.K., in Germany, I mean the U.K. of 200 local groups going out and start consumer boycotts. Same in Germany. So yeah, Greenpeace is really going to step up over the year and to towards the next side of the sea meeting. And if Norway continues whaling against the will of the IWC, we probably will step up even further.

(TV News music and broadcast)

DRING: It's a debate that's run for many months on Norwegian TV and in the press. The government denies they've broken any international regulations, maintaining it was their legal right to stand back from the IWC moratorium on whaling. They emphasize that the decision to continue the hunt was in line with recommendations already put forward by IWC scientists. Karsten Klepsvik is Norway's representative to the IWC, a roving ambassador whose office is charged with winning 'round world opinion.

KLEPSVIK: The International Whaling Commission, when it decided on the moratorium back in 1982, it also said that by 1990, the latest, they would undertake a comprehensive assessment of the whale stocks to come up with a new regime for how to handle these stocks. They didn't follow up on this, and definitely, the reason why they have not done it, is, in our view, more political than scientific. And we cannot accept that attitude.

DRING: Such a principled stand might turn out to be very expensive. There's now the threat of sanctions against Norway's $2 billion a year export trade with the United States. Even though President Clinton has deferred a decision, he's obliged, under the 1967 Fisherman's Act, to eventually take action. Off the record, US diplomats in Oslo say the President's been backed into a corner by the strength of public opinion, as well as by the law. They believe the environmentalists have manipulated the situation, using emotional fiction to override scientific fact. Ambassador Klepsvik puts it more bluntly, accusing Greenpeace of lying about the success of their boycott.

KLEPSVIK: We do not have proof of any single contract that has been lost as, because of whaling. Not a single contract. What Greenpeace claims, in this connection, is simply not the truth.

(Sound of Tram in busy Oslo street)

DRING: Certainly, business is booming on the streets of Norway these days, and there's little evidence to support the Greenpeace claims. Concern, yes, but a flat denial, for example, from the company that was supposed to have lost an order with General Motors worth $13 million.

(STREET MUSICIAN in downtown Oslo: "I live through the whales from the South through the North. And the wind today is blowing past my door...")

DRING: With excitement about the Winter Olympics mounting, even the street musicians in this country sing about Norway and its favorite role in life. A caring socialist society building bridges between worlds. As far as Greenpeace is concerned, it's all a sham, and they accuse Mrs. Gro Brundtland, Norway's famously green Prime Minister, of harpooning herself in the foot. Ingrid Berthinussen again.

BERTHINUSSEN: We used to have the environmental minister of the world. It was for herself who were standing at the environmental conference in Rio in '92 saying that this is our last chance, we have to cooperate. And three weeks later she's going off saying, we're gonna kill the whales no matter what the international agreement says. I mean, she's making a joke out of herself.

DRING: Bjorn Bore, of Nature & Youth, another Norwegian conservation group, agrees that Norway is no paragon of ecological virtue, and that the resumption of whaling may seem to be at odds with the country's supposedly green image. But in fact, he says, it's a decision based on sound environmental principles.

BORE: When you start to go into the whaling issue and see the so-called facts and arguments that are used by the anti-whaling movement, you suddenly get more and more pro-whaling. Because this issue goes to the core of environmentalism, because it's, it's about what kind of environmentalism do we want? Do we want a museum-like conservation movement, or do we want an environmental movement based on interaction, based on the principles of the ecosystem?

DRING: We must think again, say Norway's environmentalists, about the way we interact with nature, not just how we preserve it. It's not reasonable to expect that everybody should share the same moral and ethical values about whales. Greenpeace insists that the only ethic is the one that will ensure the current moratorium is turned into a permanent and enforceable ban. Behind the scenes, US diplomats believe the tide is turning in favor of officially-sanctioned commercial whaling, albeit on a very limited scale. The Norwegian government, flying the flag of Olympic greenness and scientific logic, is convinced time is on their side, and they're going for gold on this one. For Living on Earth, this is Simon Dring in Oslo.



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