Environmental groups are accusing Japan of inappropriate, behind-the-scenes use of its economic clout to build Central American support in the International Whaling Commission (IWC) for a lifting of the 20-year-old global ban on commercial whaling.
They charge Japan is dispensing aid and other favors to orchestrate a reversal of the 1986 moratorium imposed by the IWC, which holds its annual meeting in June. Says Milko Schvartzman, Latin American oceans campaign coordinator for Greenpeace: “If the Central American countries don’t do as told, Japan threatens to put their [foreign] aid at risk.”
Greenpeace claims such tactics explain Nicaraguan votes in recent years to end the whaling ban, and it says Japan is pushing El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to follow suit—even though no Central American country has ever had a whaling industry.
Costa Rica and Nicaragua are currently the only Central American members of the IWC. Costa Rica has voted consistently to uphold the ban, but Nicaragua reversed course in 2003, opposing the ban then and in the two years since.
“Nicaragua is promoting the hunting of whales when the country has no interest in hunting whales,” Schvartzman says. “Nicaragua is the only country in Latin America that is in favor of lifting the whale-hunting moratorium. It’s shameful.”
The Japanese Embassy in Managua declined to discuss the issue with EcoAméricas, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tokyo did not respond to requests for comment.
Fishing director’s view
However, Miguel Marenco, director of the Nicaraguan Fisheries Administration (Adpesca), says he supports lifting the commercial ban in the case of certain types of whales—specifically the minke whale, which he maintains has rebounded to “healthy and robust” population levels, mostly in the Antarctic Ocean.
He says his position is based on scientific research, sustainable fishing practices and solidarity with cultures that have a whaling tradition. However, he adds that the country’s final decision on how to vote in the IWC each year is made by the Foreign Ministry, which did not respond to requests for comment.
The IWC was created in 1946 to oversee implementation of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, a treaty negotiated and signed the same year in a bid to make whaling sustainable. Of the 66 member nations that have ratified the treaty and become members of the IWC, 25 now favor lifting the whaling ban. A two-thirds vote is needed to lift the ban.
Although commercial whaling is prohibited, Japan is allowed to hunt thousands of whales each year for “scientific purposes”—a controversial exception that conservationists argue amounts to whaling by another name.
The commercial ban is subject to a vote each year at the IWC annual meeting. This year’s meeting is scheduled to be held June 16-20 in the Caribbean nation of St. Kitts and Nevis—one of a handful of Caribbean countries to vote with Japan in recent years. Other Caribbean nations supporting an end to the ban include Belize, Grenada, Panama, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent.
“Japan gets three or four new countries to support them each year,” Schvartzman says. “We can’t decide the future of the oceans this way.”
More to join Japan?
Anti-whaling groups forecast that three neighbors of Nicaragua—El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala—could be the next to side with Japan. Though none of those countries is currently a member of the commission, Guatemala ratified the 1946 whaling treaty in September, which makes the country eligible to join.
At the time, critics called the move a prelude to Guatemala becoming a commission member and voting with Japan. (See “Guatemalan ratification of whaling treaty questioned”—EcoAméricas, Oct. ’05.)
Carlos Albacete, leader of the Guatemalan conservation group Trópico Verde, says his organization met with Guatemalan Foreign Minister Jorge Briz last month and was told the government had not yet taken a position on how it would vote should it join the commission in June. But Albacete asserts the die may already be cast. He points to the fact that two weeks after Guatemala ratified the whaling convention, Japan made a $67 million loan for Guatemalan highway-infrastructure repair.
In El Salvador, government officials last month confirmed they are studying the possibility IWC membership, according to a report in the San Salvador daily La Prensa. El Salvador sent a government official to observe the 2003 IWC meeting in Berlin.
And in Honduras, environmentalists charge that visits there last month by Japanese Fishing Agency officials were aimed at getting the Honduran government to consider joining the IWC.
Says Schvartzman: “Without a doubt, Japan’s biggest targets for recruitment in Latin America are El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.”
- Tim Rogers