Arctic trip changed 19-year-old’s views on animal hunting

WONG PEI TING Today Online 15 Aug 18;

SINGAPORE — Yale environmental studies undergraduate Victoria Lim, 19, had previously taken a dim view of seal hunting. But having returned last week from a trip to the Arctic, she found her view challenged.

A ban or boycott of seal products would impoverish the Inuit, said the self-professed environmentalist, who also developed a better appreciation of the need to have diverse views on environmental issues.

Last month, Victoria became the first Singaporean to join more than 100 youths from 16 other places, including Ecuador and Micronesia, on a 16-day expedition to the Arctic to witness climate change where it is most apparent.

Speaking to TODAY on Tuesday (Aug 14), the undergraduate who just completed her first year at Yale University said she gained a greater insight into the reality of living in the polar north through interacting with the 40 or so Inuit people who participated in the award-winning Canadian educational programme called Students On Ice.

The climate in the northern regions of Canada and Greenland is so hostile that it is impossible for the indigenous communities to grow any food, Victoria said. That means, the Inuit either have to import their food — which is expensive and environmentally unfriendly — or source them locally, which means turning to marine animals like seals which inhabit the region.

"Eating marine animals is really just how they always lived," said the SJI International alumnus. And unlike commercial hunters, the Inuit "literally just go out with a spear and maybe a gun" to catch one seal, which is used to feed the entire family, she added.

Inuit arctic wear made from seal pelts are seen displayed on a table. Photo: Victoria Lim

So the seal pelts they sell are merely a byproduct of them utilising every part of the animal they can't eat, the teenager said, adding that it is because they have such a respect for the animal that they ensure that no part of it goes to waste.

So, the constant lobbying by animals rights' groups to ban or boycott of seal products like pelts have seen demand for those products plunge, which in turn impoverish the Inuit who rely on the sale as one of their largest streams of revenue, leaving them economically further behind.

"Regardless of whether they sell the seal skin or not, they are going to eat the seal anyway," said the Public Service Commission scholarship holder.

Ironically, the lobby against animal products made life more difficult for the very people who were really trying to practice sustainable living, turning what Victoria used to believe in on its head. This revelation got her pondering about issues of inequality and human rights, and what exactly is "sustainable development".

Her S$18,000 trip, fully sponsored by the National Youth Achievement Award (NYAA) Council as a prize for winning the HSBC-NYAA Youth Environmental Award last year, also opened her eyes to the need for a diversity of voices.

"You cannot develop a complete narrative of any story if you don't have a diversity of voices," said Victoria, noting that some of the peers she interacted with on the trip hunted seals and even caribou, yet they also cared deeply about the environment.

Climate change is very real to the communities living in the polar north, she added, as they shared stories about how more Inuit are falling through ice as the knowledge passed down by their forefathers about ice thickness is less reliable in a time of global warming and melting ice caps.

Hunting seasons are also changing by as much as weeks and months. And it is no longer so cold that their urine would freeze in winter when they pee outdoors. Instead, they could head out on some days in just a hoodie, unthinkable in the not-so-distant past, she said.

But even as the indigenous communities in the Arctic bear the brunt of climate change brought about by others, Victoria said it is time for city dwellers like herself to truly understand that they, too, have a role to play.

"Whatever happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic. And whatever happens outside the Arctic will affect the Arctic somehow … The whole world is interconnected (politically, economically, etc, and) especially when it comes to the environment," she said.