SUBSISTENCE VALUES AND ETHICS

Finn Lynge

Paper presented to the 1998 General Assembly of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, Nuuk, Greenland

 

Survival of the Inuit culture is a cultural issue -- yes. It is also a question of a historical process. A question of colonial policies in generations past, and of political developments at the turn of the millenium. And it is a question of the attitude taken by contemporary Inuit themselves toward the original social and spiritual culture, fishing and hunting, toward economic development and industry, toward the contemporary and necessary work of teachers and administrators, in short, towards an enormous array of issues. Through it all and fundamentally, of course, it is and remains a matter of personal attitudes toward the phenomena surround us. It is a question of values.

It is no easy matter to decide what element in cultural survival is the most important, what facet is pivotal, where to concentrate the efforts in present ICC policy-making. Today, we will focus our attention on something which so far has received all too little attention, and which-- to the mind of a growing number of people -- is essential in securing a place for hunting cultures in the world of tomorrow. And that is the question of economic quantification of subsistence values.

A significant part of world economy is not quantified, does not figure in any statistics and is lost out of sight in the national accounts. That is the economic value inherent in direct consumption of plant and animal products harvested in the wild. Quantification of values, or, if you wish, economic assessments, are done by money counting. What evades a monetary assessment has no interest for the statisticians. For government economic planners, what cannot be counted in money does not exist. The phenomena represents a real problem. A very significant portion of the world's 300 million indigenous peoples obtain their daily necessities directly from nature. Theirs is the subsistence lifestyle, an economy which is nowhere quantified in the official accounts of the government agencies.

Typically, what happens is as follows: a European or American nature conservation organisation approaches a third world government in a tropical country in order to persuade it to set aside a certain savannah or rainforest area as a wildlife reserve. In doing so, they use monetary arguments. A nature reservation can be relied upon to attract so many tourists and create such-and-such an income for the country question. The government finds the idea appealing and feels that it has no choice but to accept the conditions attached to the offer, among them the demand that people living in the area be evacuated. The people affected are typically indigenous to the area and generally live in harmony with the environment. They may be pastoralists or hunters, but whatever their lifestyle they normally don't represent a threat to any plant or animal species. Nevertheless, they are forcibly removed because European and American tourists want to see animals, not people.

Aside from the human rights violations and many practical problems inherent in this scenario, the problems are being compounded by the economic dynamic. People are - often - torn away from a well-functioning non-monetary economy and thrown into a money economy which does not function properly, if at all. That is a recipe for economic loss. X number of people who until then did not show up in the economic statistics now do -- as a liability. Forced relocation of people always in the end costs money -- housing, schools, a minimum of modern infrastructure, unless you want to relocate people into slums already existing elsewhere, in which case they also translate into a burden which in the end costs money.

In some cases, indigenous groups are pushed into neighbouring areas already occupied by other aboriginal groups. This almost always results in a certain measure of strife and tribal wars -- which also, needless to say, is bad for the economy -- not to mention the cost in human misery. There is only one conclusion to draw from this dilemma: it is necessary-- and urgent -- to find a way to quantify subsistence economies. Around the world, indigenous peoples find their food, clothing and shelter in the forests, on plains and highlands, along coasts and in wetlands, and, as we know, even on the ice floes here in the Arctic.

Experts in the World Bank have no doubt: to the extent that political will can be found, subsistence lifestyle values can and should be quantified in figures like any other economic activity. Africa is a particularly relevant example. At the IUCN headquarters in Switzerland, experts assess that at least three-quarters of the real economy of Africa lives its own life outside any shape or kind of monetary system, and is never accounted for. Where, on the other hand, economic quantification of subsistence values takes place, and formal comparisions can be made between on the one hand the advantage in leaving a functioning subsistence economy alone, and on the other hand disrupting it for the purpose of obtaining a cash flow from abroad, governments will generally come to the conclusion that it simply doesn't pay to bow to outside demands for the relocation of people.

Forced relocation is a phenomenon which we have experienced also in the Inuit world. But in the Arctic it hasn't, thank God, ever taken place in order to gratify nature protectors or animal lovers in the dominant societies. As a hunting culture, the Inuit way of life has by and large always been respected on its own terms. And maybe too much. This is my point here. Maybe too much.

Here in Greenland, for example, it is respected to the point where it is kept outside any official value assessment. In this country we take some 150,000 seals every year. They are, as we all know, used for food for people and for dogs, for kamiks and coats, for feast days and for every day use. They represent the foundation upon which many families build their lives, and always have. Yet in the official Greenland HomeRule Statistical Yearbook you will look in vain for the economic value attached to sealing. If some authoritative person should one day get the idea that from now on, this or that settlement should stop eating seal meat and have beef or mutton instead, it would all have to be imported.

It would also have to subsidized, and that would be very expensive. In that situation, it is obvious to all that if nothing else there exists what might be called a seal meat replacement value, which could readily be accounted for in the national statistics. But of course that does not happen, so nobody thinks of this seal, that char or that eider duck as an economic entity to be reflected in the statistics. Where no money figures on the books, no politician or civil servant will think of investing any money.

The money that people build their world figures on are written down on nice columns on paper. But subsistence values are not written down that way, and are therefore not perceived to be inside any system of economic value circulation and accretion. For all practical purposes, in the eyes of the formal financial planners, values do not exist where no money comes in. Nobody thinks seriously of investing taxpayers' money for example in promoting a new small-scale technology which could help just one family or two, living in some isolated spot, to get the electricity they need. Nobody goes into any campaign in order to have some engineer design an easy and practical little machine to scrape and wash the sealskins before they are shipped off to the factory in Qaqortoq.

Yet that is what is needed nowadays, if nothing else, for two good reasons: the tannery -- very reasonably -- demands uniform quality skins from the hunters' households, and, secondly, the hunters' wives -- also very reasonably -- are reluctant to accept the same hardships as their grandmothers and great-grandmothers did in the old days. Everybody else enjoys technological advances. Why not hunters' wives as well? Investments of this kind, small in scale as they would be, would readily pay off -- not only, as for the case in point, in assuring better products from the small settlements but not the least simply in making life in isolated places more palatable.

Inuit values have their roots in small-scale living -- no big urban settlements, no high-rise buildings and street cars and factories. Of course, these urban phenomena will probably also spread in the north in times to come, like they have everywhere else in the world. But our values are tied to small-scale living, and it is important for all of us that a significant part of our people keep their ties to the land, sea and ice, out of small settlement households.

What, then, are the Inuit values?

NUNAMUT ATAQQINNINNEQ -- none of us here are in doubt: that is the sentiment of PRIDE in simply knowing this marvelous land, feeling it in our bones, knowing its whales and caribou, its endless plains and mountains, its light and dark, both unparalleled anywhere in the world,its hardness and its beauty -- pride and respect for the land!

AKISUSSAASSUSEQ -- the sentiment of RESPONSIBILITY toward the land and everything that lives here. We harvest what we need, but Inuit take no pride in needless killing. Trigger happiness is nothing to be proud of! The fish, the seals and the whales, the caribou and the musk oxen, the birds of the sea and of the land, they are all given in our hands for sensible stewardship. Those living in the small settlements know this better than many others.

TUKKUSSUSEQ -- GENEROSITY and HOSPITALITY, those are Inuit values. They have their roots in the close ties of our extended families, and they have always been guarded and cultivated in the small places where considerations over money do not dictate the agenda of the day.

INUK NAMMINEQ -- personal INDEPENDENCE and individual STRENGTH is maybe what commands the greatest respect among Inuit -- distrust of distant rulers, the ability to see and judge for oneself, and the courage to act accordingly. ---------- Again: none of us are in doubt.

All these are basic values that tie us together, throughout the Inuit homeland. Whatever breaks down the respect for our land, our sense of responsibility in wildlife management, our generosity and personal strength is unethical. Whatever strengthens us in such purposes is good and right. Which, in the present context, brings us to one practical conclusion: we must persuade our politicians and civil servants to include the traditional hunting products -- that is, the subsistence economy -- in the national accounts. After all, they do represent a real economic value which needs to be properly recorded. Investments in small-scale development in the isolated communities is a necessity of we want to secure their future viability. And we do. For the values lived out in a well-functioning small settlement, they ARE our values as a people.


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