March 17, 2000

Commentary

Impasse at POPs talks unacceptable for Inuit

Will next week's negotiations in Bonn succeed in banning the chemicals that Inuit are eating?

SHEILA WATT-CLOUTIER AND TERRY FENGE
Special to Nunatsiaq News

OTTAWA — Next week Inuit and other northern indigenous peoples will be at the forefront of a major global issue -- negotiations in Bonn by more than 120 nations in search of a global convention that will affect hundreds of thousands of Canadians.

This convention, sponsored by the United Nations Environment Program, will attempt to ban persistent organic pollutants, or POPs, which invade our food and bodies and impair our reproductive, neurological and immune systems. The offending substances include PCBs, DDT, industrial by-products such as dioxins and furans, and various pesticides and insecticides.

The good news is that the negotiations are under way and that the recent federal budget committed Canada to an initial contribution of as much as $20 million to help developing nations rid themselves of these poisons.

The bad news is that the Bonn negotiations could reach an impasse; the developing and developed worlds have different ideas on how the convention should function, who should pay for it, how much money is needed, and how it should be managed.

An impasse would be intolerable to northern Canadians, particularly Inuit, who already have levels of certain POPs in their bodies many times higher than the rates Health Canada considers safe.

Northerners are particularly at risk because key POPs used in Asia and Africa, as well as Europe and North America, end up in the Arctic, concentrating at the top of the food chain. When Inuit eat what they hunt -- seal, whale, walrus -- they consume a mix of these contaminants. Women pass them to their babies through the placenta and breast milk.

Imagine for a moment the shock of the Inuit as they discover that what has nourished them for generations, physically and spiritually, is now poisoning them. Some Inuit now question whether they should eat locally gathered food; others ask whether it is safe to breast-feed their infants. What sort of public outcry and government action would there be if the same levels of POPs found among Inuit were found in women in Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver as a result of eating poultry or beef?

A comprehensive, verifiable, and rigorously implemented global convention to eliminate these POPs is required. Will we get it? Can Canada persuade others that such a convention serves their self-interests as well as ours?

It's going to be difficult. Russia and other transitional economies will require years, perhaps decades, to live up to any obligations they may make. Some developing countries, including India and China, wonder whether the developed world's environmental agenda -- including limitations on persistent organic pollutants -- will retard their economic growth.

The United States, a force to be reckoned with in any international negotiations, seems not to appreciate how important this issue is for its own indigenous peoples in Alaska. The European Union continues to punch below its weight. Phasing out DDT will be particularly difficult -- it prevents thousands of cases of malaria every year in the developing world -- until cost-effective alternatives are available.

Canada worked hard to get POPs onto the international agenda and is pressing other nations to sign on. As a middle power, Canada's ability to persuade others rests on its reputation. Participation in Bonn by Inuit and other indigenous peoples will add markedly to Canada's ability to stake out the high moral ground.

Nevertheless, thanks to our lacklustre record in living up to our international commitments, our environmental standing has declined markedly since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

Canada insists that any convention it signs regarding POPs not require changes to its domestic legislation or policy. This may lead to our supporting a convention that manages the pollutants rather than eliminating them.

It certainly will allow Canada to maintain existing restrictions on public access to chemical-related health information under the guise of "confidentiality of business information." This, perhaps, is why the House of Commons Standing Committee on the Environment chose to hold an in camera hearing yesterday to be briefed by Canada's negotiators.

Next week in Bonn, we'll find out much about Canada's foreign-policy priorities — and whether Canada still has what it takes to lead the world on a public-health and environmental-security issue of compelling importance to its own people.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier is president and Terry Fenge research director of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (Canada). This article appeared in the Globe and Maill earlier this week.