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By Bob Burton

CANBERRA, Australia (November 21, 2000 – Inter Press Service/Asia Times)---A vigorous debate has broken out among New Zealand's Maori community over whether indigenous people should lend their support for increased commercial whaling.

The debate, spawned by the meeting of World Council of Whalers in the small New Zealand town of Nelson over the weekend, occurred as the Japanese whaling fleet set sail to once more hunt in the Southern Ocean whale sanctuary.

New Zealand's Minister for Conservation Sandra Lee has taken fellow Maori leaders to task for giving legitimacy to the World Council of Whalers' meeting. ''Maori and other indigenous people need to be vigilant to ensure that we are never used as stalking horses by those seeking a resumption of commercial whaling interests,'' she said.

The conference was attended by 150 delegates from more than a dozen countries, including representatives from the Inuit communities of Greenland and Canada, the Ainu of Japan and the Maori of New Zealand.

A commissioner from the New Zealand government-established Treaty of Waitangi Fisheries Commission, Archie Tairoa, welcomed the opportunity to meet with other indigenous leaders concerned about international whaling policies. ''Indigenous communities have been hit hard'' by the existing policies, he said.

In a keynote address to the conference, former chairman of the Ngai Tahu tribe Sir Tipene O'Regan criticized environmentalists as "ayatollahs'' who were ''practicing a new form of millennium religion'' in protecting whales. O'Regan claimed that conservation regulations greatly restricted the ability of Maori to access bone from whales that beached themselves on New Zealand's shores. O'Regan also rejected claims that the World Council of Whalers is nothing more than a front for the commercial whaling industry. There was ''no more ... insulting and patronizing position than that which depicts this gathering as a naive bunch of natives being led around by the nose by industrial nations,'' he declared.

While Lee challenged the organizers of the World Council of Whalers to disclose its funding sources, Greenpeace campaigner Sarah Duthie pointed to a Norwegian Ministry of Fisheries document detailing a grant of 80,000 kroner (approximately US$ 10,000) as evidence that some of the funding for the conference came from agencies with a commercial motivation.

Lee, from the Ngai Tahu tribe, dismissed claims that current regulations on whaling restricted the rights Maori have in gaining access to whale bone for carving. ''I was also perplexed by recent reports that the Treaty of Waitangi Fisheries Commission's main purpose for inviting the WCW to hold its third assembly in Nelson was to discuss the issue of harvesting beached whales,'' she said. ''Throughout this country, Maori with an interest in retrieving bone from stranded whales have been doing so for many years, with the active support and assistance of the Department of Conservation.''

Lee says she is also not willing to accept that Maori should argue for access to whales, but ignore the need to support sanctuaries in Antarctica and the South Pacific to protect them. ''We must never be guilty of cultural double-standards by being selective in espousing our cultural relationship with these amazing ancient mammals of the deep,'' she said. ''We must balance our customary use of the material from stranded whales against our other relationship with them. Some iwi [Maori] regard the whale as an ancestor. My own iwi holds to the tradition that we were guided here by one.''

Councilor from the Japanese Institute of Cetacean Research Dan Goodman had argued against a proposal for a South Pacific Whales Sanctuary at the International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting in Adelaide in July, with strong support from New Zealand. Goodman, who attended the IWC conference as part of the Japanese delegation, argues that whales should be hunted to relieve pressure on fish stocks.

''A whale sanctuary in the South Pacific Ocean could have a significant adverse impact on fish resources by providing excessive and unnecessary protection for cetaceans that consume large amounts of marine living resources,'' Goodman said. ''Implementation of sanctuaries for emotional reasons rather than scientific reasons is contrary to the world standard of sustainable utilization.''

''Japan claims that the research is conducted for the International Whaling Commission. However, the commission's scientists have unanimously agreed that they don't need the information produced,'' countered Greenpeace's Shane Rattenbury.

Lee remains unmoved by the whalers' criticism of the New Zealand government's opposition to commercial whaling. ''If the intention of the organizers of the World Council of Whalers was to persuade the government to change its policies on whaling, they would be disappointed.

''Perhaps the best message that iwi can contribute is that the whale has sustained indigenous people all the world over in times past, when the animals were not massively hunted,'' Lee added. ''And now we indigenous people have a duty to sustain these amazing creatures for their own sake.''

For additional reports from the Asia Times, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Asia Times Online: Oceania.

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