The only whales seen in Nicaragua are the ones that wash up occasionally on the Pacific beaches. The country has no whaling fleet, no tradition of whaling and certainly no market for whale blubber.
MANAGUA, Nicaragua − The only whales seen in Nicaragua are the ones that wash up occasionally on the Pacific beaches. The country has no whaling fleet, no tradition of whaling and certainly no market for whale blubber.
Yet that didn't stop the impoverished Central American country from joining the International Whaling Commission last year, just in time to attend the commission's annual session in Sorrento, Italy, where it voted with Japan for measures promoting more whale hunting.
"Why Nicaragua? Well, why Switzerland? Why Mongolia? Those countries are members, and some don't even have oceans," said Miguel Marenco, Nicaragua's new whaling commissioner. "As a fishing nation, we are very much interested in the management of marine species."
Environmentalists believe there may be another reason for Nicaragua's sudden interest in whales: millions of dollars worth of Japanese aid, delivered in sake-sipping ceremonies and used to pay for roads, schools and other desperate needs.
In recent years, Japan has inched closer to achieving a majority in the 58-member whaling commission with what environmental groups say is a systematic campaign to recruit poor nations with no whaling tradition such as Nicaragua, landlocked Mongolia and a number of Caribbean islands.
The countries allegedly are offered international assistance, or subtly threatened with losing what they already receive. In exchange they are to deliver pro-whaling votes that have little to do with their citizens' taste for whale blubber or skills with a harpoon.
By the environmentalists' count, the number of such nations voting with Japan in favor of commercial whaling has grown from nine to nearly 20 since 2000. It is happening just as debate is intensifying over whether to lift an 18-year-old moratorium on whale hunting, which would require a three-quarters commission vote.
"Japan is getting very close to a majority, and it will be a majority that is bought, not won," said Vassili Papastavrou, a whale scientist with the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
Nicaragua and other new commission members join Japan in denying suggestions of "vote buying," saying the votes are based on good science and the aid is an entirely unrelated matter. They counter that environmentalists are the ones using "sensationalist" arguments to pressure countries into voting for more whale protections.
The dispute has spouted at a time when the commission faces important decisions on the fate of the world's largest mammals. While many species were hunted to the brink of extinction in the 1960s, some of them, such as the minke and sperm whales, have recovered enough that some scientists believe they can be hunted again.
Others, citing the sad history of whaling, argue that dropping the 1986 moratorium would open the door once again to wanton overharvesting, because whaling always has proved difficult to regulate on the high seas.
The International Whaling Commission was set up in 1946 to do just that. For the last 18 years, though, it has backed the almost complete moratorium with the help of environmentalists' "Save the Whales" campaign.
Among the few countries still whaling are Japan and Norway, which enjoy small exceptions for research. There are also exceptions for subsistence whaling by aboriginal groups.
The charges of vote-buying by Japan intensified two years ago when several new members, including Nicaragua and six Caribbean nations, helped vote down a whale sanctuary in the South Pacific despite the support of Australia and other countries in that region.
At this year's meeting in July, the commission approved a resolution to create a final management plan by next year's session. In a 30-27 vote, Japan lost on its proposal to raise from 440 to 600 the number of minke whales it can hunt for research.
In the 18 months since Nicaragua became a commission member, it has voted with Japan on 21 of 23 proposals. Environmentalists say six Japanese-aided Caribbean nations--Antigua, Dominica, Grenada, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and St. Kitts and Nevis--have been even stronger advocates of whaling, despite no apparent national interest in whaling.
Commission leaders asked the environmentalists to compile a report on the alleged vote-buying before the group's 2005 meeting in South Korea. The scientific issues are being addressed at a meeting this week in Sweden of a committee trying to craft final whaling regulations if the moratorium is lifted.
Japanese officials say the new members simply have been convinced by scientific facts, such as evidence that the rebounding whales now pose a threat to other endangered species because they eat five times as much fish as the world's human population.
"This type of [vote-buying] accusation is totally false," said Naohito Watanabe, the charge d'affaires at the Japanese Embassy in Managua. "We help countries who need us. We are collaborating with some of them at the IWC, but we are not obliging them."
Watanabe said Japan has been one of the top donors to Nicaragua because it feels it owes a debt to the world.
"The photos of Managua in 1972 [after a devastating earthquake] look just like our cities after World War II, all in ashes," he said, noting how international aid helped Japan recover. "Now we want to return the favor."
He said that Japan also gives aid to Mexico, an anti-whaling member of the commission, and to El Salvador and Honduras, who are not members.
Since 1990, 13 years before it joined the whaling commission, Nicaragua has landed an average of $41 million annually in Japanese aid, including $70 million in 2001 for recovery efforts after 1998's Hurricane Mitch. This year the Japanese Embassy hopes to secure about $30 million in donations, Watanabe said.
Nicaragua has spent the money on everything from bridges to nurse training to equipment for the national orchestra. At one event in 2002, Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolanos donned a traditional Japanese jacket and helped break open a wooden cask of sake to celebrate the opening of a Japan-funded water pumping plant.
Marenco, Nicaragua's whaling commission representative, said he was the one who proposed joining the organization. As director of his country's fisheries management agency, he also attends global forums on tuna and endangered species.
He said Nicaragua would act at the commission in accordance with its belief in the "sustainable use" of marine resources, which it has demonstrated in programs to conserve lobsters, its main fisheries export, and to protect the fishing traditions of Miskito Indians on the Caribbean coast. He also noted that Nicaragua has voted against Japan for at least one whaling restriction, a proposal demanding more humane killing methods.
"It is logical that there is pressure, but Japan has never pressured me," he said.
Actually, Marenco is frustrated that Japan has not given him more fisheries aid. For years he has asked the Tokyo government for several million dollars for a seafood market in Managua and fishing facilities in the port of San Juan del Sur, but the Japanese have been reluctant, perhaps because of the vote-buying allegations, he said.
"We never think in terms of favors," Marenco said. "We think in terms of keeping a balance in nature."
Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News