Inuit Eyes on Mandela During POPs Conference

IQALUIT, Nunavut, Canada, December 4, 2000 (ENS) - Canada's Inuit people hope former South African president Nelson Mandela will support efforts to reduce persistant organic pollutants (POPs) in the Arctic.

A delegation from the Inuit Circumpolar Conference plans to meet Mandela during this week's negotations to reduce or eliminate 12 POPs under a globally binding treaty.

polar bears

POPs build up in the fat of game animals such as polar bear. (Photo courtesy WWF/Svein B. Oppegaard)
Delegates from more than 120 countries are in Johannesburg for the last of five scheduled negotiating sessions on a POPs treaty set up by the United Nations Environment Program.

POPs are toxic, long lasting, and travel in multiple cycles of evaporation, transported by air and condensation to remote areas far from the source of release.

Communities like Iqaluit in Canada's far north are particularly vulnerable to POPs. In the cold climate of the Canadian Arctic, low evaporation rates trap POPs, allowing them to enter the food chain.

They build up in the fat of game animals like polar bear, walrus and seals, staples of the Inuit diet.

Scientific evidence shows levels of POPs such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the blood of some Inuit women are higher than Health Canada guidelines, and levels of certain POPs in breast milk have been found up to nine times higher than in women who live in southern Canada.

The Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC) links the Inuit from Russia, Alaska and Greenland who hunt, fish, work and live on the coast of the Arctic Ocean. It was established in 1980 to collectively respond to rapid development and negative changes to the Arctic environment.

Mandela, who endured more than two decades in jail for his crusade against white rule, has become an inspiration to indigenous rights activists around the globe.

The group planning to meet with Mandela includes Nunavut Premier Paul Okalik, ICC-Canada president Sheila Watt-Cloutier, plus representatives from the Yukon and possibly Siberia.


Former South African leader Nelson Mandela. (Photo courtesy Government of South Africa)
Slated for Thursday in Johannesburg, the session with Mandela will take place during the final negotiations of what is formally known as the Fifth Session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC 5).

INC 5 negotiations will focus on limitations on manufacture and use of POPs, national action plans, funding, technical assistance, exemptions for DDT, which is used to combat malaria, and stockpiles of obsolete or unwanted pesticides.

Negotiators hope to establish criteria identifying other POPs for elimination. If all sides agree this week, a diplomatic conference to sign the treaty will take place in Stockholm in May 2001, followed by ratification and implementation.

Watt-Cloutier said Mandela's role was vital to the Inuit.

"What weíre really hoping is he will consider making a public statement about the need for this global treaty," said Watt-Cloutier, who arranged the meeting.

Due to Mandelaís moral stature, his words could bring critical attention to the neglected issue of Arctic pollution, Watt-Cloutier said. "If Nelson Mandela even glances toward the Inuit, so too will the world."

Cloutier said the ultimate goal of the UN treaty is to stop environmental contaminants at their source.


ICC-Canada president Sheila Watt-Cloutier. (Photo courtesy ICC-Canada)
The 12 POPs to be covered by the treaty consist of the pesticides aldrin, chlordane, DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), dieldrin, endrin, heptachlor, mirex, and toxaphene; the industrial chemicals PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and hexachlorobenzene, which is also a pesticide; and dioxins and furans, which are the unwanted byproducts of combustion and industrial processes.

Though diets high in animal fat put Inuit at particular risk, no one is safe from these pollutants, Cloutier said.

"This is an early warning for the rest of the world. Itís late for us - not too late - but it's an early warning for the rest of the world."

The ICC will attend the POPs conference in South Africa in an observer role, but the Inuit have been intimately involved with the actual drafting of the treaty. In Canada, the ICC has been the driving force behind the Canadian delegation to the negotiations.

Watt-Cloutier said it had been grueling trying to get more than 100 nations to agree on every word of every clause of the document.

"Iíll be happy when its over," she said. "But Iíll be happier if itís beneficial to our people in the Arctic."

Mandela could be a key in making sure the treaty is beneficial.

Watt-Cloutier said she feels immensely honored that Mandela agreed to meet with the ICC delegation.

"I felt very blessed indeed," she said. "His example has really strengthened all of us."

Produced in cooperation with Nunatsiaq News: