As simple as the sentence in this header may sound, the more difficult it seems to many to comprehend what it really means. I came to think about that, when I tried to answer some questions I got today in an E-mail from an Australian journalist, asking me: 1. Do Faroe islanders consider pilot whales to be “higher order” animals, and sentient creatures? Do they have respect for them? 2. Are there any other animals in the Faroe Islands that are noticeably championed as animal welfare/rights cases (for example, in Australia caged chickens and live cattle exports are prominent)? 3. Why do you think the external pressure from other cultures to stop the whaling in the Faroe Islands could be seen as cultural imperialism? This was my reply:
Oh, my…. the questions you ask are really big questions, I couldn’t possibly answer in just one E-mail. I will try, but to do any justice to the issue, I feel like I have to explain the fundamentals of a whole aboriginal culture, and that cannot be explained – not even if I wrote a whole book about it. It has to be lived, I guess. I have a feeling that it would still be very difficult to understand for anyone who hasn’t been part of this culture from childhood.
Sometimes I really regret, how alienated most people in the world have become to what life is like for people, who live in the midst of nature or very close to it – Especially in the high north – and have to live off of local natural resources in a much more direct way than any urban dweller could even imagine.
What is completely natural for people in the Faroes, seems so alien to other people, who have never lived here – or in similar places – so they can’t possibly understand the Faroese way of life. And thus many of the aspects of this life provokes them. People are often provoked or disgusted by what they don’t understand.
To be fair: The Faroese are also themselves sometimes provoked by traditions in other countries – fairly or unfairly. Some people in the Faroe Islands – a sheepherding country – are, for instance, provoked and even disgusted by the Australian tradition of mulesing merino sheep, which seems very cruel to them. But do they really know that for sure?
A natural and a modern life
I’ve tried to explain Faroese food culture in an article I wrote, that perhaps might give you just a little insight into what it’s like to live and grow up in the Faroes under the special conditions we have here – especially for us who have come to a certain age and grew up in a much more backwards society than the Faroe Islands are today.
But the extraordinary thing with the Faroese people is, that even though people here have become quite modernised in later years, they still have very close ties to the old way of life in close connection with nature, simply because you can’t ‘escape’ nature, when you live in such a small archipelago in the middle of the North Atlantic. Nature is ever present all around you all the time. You can’t possibly forget it. Especially because the climate is so harsh most of the year, so you cannot help literary feeling it with your whole body each and every day, when you walk outside your door. But mostly because you’re never able to dismiss the fact that your natural environment is what you life depends on.
Even though part of daily life for many people, especially in the only city in the Faroes, Tórshavn, with 20.000 inhabitants, might look similar to daily life for people in most of the western world, Faroese life is still very different in other aspects, because of the circumstances we live in. The Faroese people might be very modern and well-educated and all, but they’re all still extremely dependent on the relatively small diversity in natural resources they have access to in this small country in the midst of a vast ocean.
Everyone in the Faroes is very conscious of the fact that this is what people here build their whole existence on. So they might live a modern life, but, simultaneously, still provide a sustenance for themselves–not only with a modern fishing fleet–but also in the old ancient ways.
Something which is very difficult for others to comprehend, is that it’s a necessity for the Faroese people to be both modern and traditional – and possible also, because the whole society is arranged in a way where people appreciate and agree that it is necessary to interrupt your daily work when the time is ripe to bring the sheep home and slaughter them, or go bird-catching, or go hare-hunting – or participate in pilot whaling – and, additionally, to prepare and store the food you have provided for yourself and your family. This food constitutes a large part of the total food consumption and is completely indispensable for most families – especially for the 12% in the Faroe Islands who live at or below the poverty line.
I’ll give you a link to two articles I’ve written that might be relevant to you, and another one written by a New Foundlander, who seems to have a clear understanding of, what life is like in the Faroes. Probably because there are many similarities between life in New Foundland and the Faroes.
Relations to animals
I will also give you a link to a brand new short documentary about a Faroese fulmar hunter, who also works as a journalist on a daily basis. I’m sure the documentary will provoke and disgust some city folks, who might even engage in a new hating campaign against the “savages” in the Faroes because of it. But I will bet on, that most of the people, who will feel provoked by this, still munch delicious burgers, probably not even aware of the fact that they personally let other people do the “dirty work” for them (like killing and slaughtering the animals they eat). They eat the meat without any thoughts for the animals they put in their mouth, as opposed to the Faroese of whom many have a much more direct contact with the animals they eat – both in life and death.
But first I will try to give you some relatively brief answers to the concrete questions you asked me.
Do the Faroese have respect for whales?
You asked me if the Faroe Islanders consider pilot whales to be “higher order” animals, and sentient creatures – and if the Faroese have respect for the whales. At first I found this an odd question to ask. Almost insulting. I had to remind myself of the fact that you have no way of knowing, because you come from a country very far away, so the Faroes must seem very remote to you – and our way of life must thus also seem quite alien to you.
Well, to answer the question. Yes, the Faroese certainly do have respect for whales – and other animals as well. Animals in the Faroes are likely treated much better than animals are treated most other places in the world – definitely better than farm animals in the industrialised world. There is no denying, though, that animals of different kinds are killed, slaughtered and eaten in the Faroes, but most of these animals live a very good life before that. They are treated respectfully and with love as long as they live.
Faroe Islanders raise a lot of sheep – there are more sheep than people in the Faroes – and the Faroese people love their sheep. But they still slaughter them to eat them, because they have to. It’s not disrespectful to do so. People’s lives are just dependent on it. And even the sheep would suffer greatly, if some of them weren’t slaughtered each year. Of course the Faroese value and respect these animals. The better they treat the animals, the better food they get – and they can eat the animals with a good conscience, not least.
All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others
And yes, Faroe Islanders are very aware of the fact that whales are “higher order” animals and sentient creatures. But there are practical reasons and facts of life in these islands, which mean that this doesn’t prevent them from wanting to eat the whales, just like they’ve done for 1200 years at least. Not any more than the love and respect the farmer feels for the sheep he raised, prevents him from slaughtering the sheep and eating them. It seems very difficult for some people to wrap their head around these facts of life.
The Faroese are also aware of, that many other animals that people kill for food are “higher order” animals and also sentient beings. Not just whales. Sheep and cows are also highly sentient beings. People here do not see much difference between the whales and these other animals. They value them all. That’s why they want ALL animals to have a good life, including the whales. Sheep roam freely in the mountains. Whales roam freely in the ocean. And some of these animals are taken for slaughter, so the people can survive. It doesn’t mean that the Faroese respect any of these animals less than the others.
What makes the difference?
And why do the Faroese look differently at this than other people outside the Faroes? Why do the Faroese consider all animals – or rather mammals – to be equal, as opposed to people elsewhere, who somehow have come to favour the whales – and thus in fact, in a way, disrespect all other animals, because they make an unfounded difference between the whales and the other mammals, giving the whales privileges they don’t give other animals. Unfounded at least seen from a Faroese perspective.
Well, the difference lies in people’s different living conditions. People could never survive in the Faroes on plants alone, because of the climate. So the Faroese have always been dependent on protein from animals – both domestic animals like sheep and cows (we have no pigs in the Faroes) and wild animals like birds, hares, fish, and whales.
The fact that the Faroese live surrounded by the ocean, has of course a major significance in regard to what kind of foods, people eat in the Faroes, as opposed to what people in – let’s say – Italy, Hungary, Mongolia, Sierra Leone or Australia eat, where they have a whole different climate and lots of other food alternatives. The ocean is the “farm fields” of the Faroese. They have no other choice than to harvest the ocean resources to be able to survive.
You eat what is available to you. You have no other choice than to live of what is available to you in your surroundings. And that is what forms your food culture and your economy, because you must either eat what is available to you, or sell to others what is available to you to be able to afford to import other foods.
Whaling not commercial but still economically significant
Let me emphasise in this regard: The Faroese kill Pilot whales, but their meat is NOT exported, though. The Faroese keep it for themselves. They still hold on to the old tradition of killing pilot whales and sharing the meat and blubber with each other in the community – for free. Private people might sell a small part of their share to restaurants and food stores in Tórshavn, if they have more than enough for themselves, but it’s forbidden for firms to hunt whales and sell them on a commercial basis. This is what makes the big difference between Faroese whaling and whaling in other countries, which is solely commercial and done for profit.
Pilot whale meat and blubber does still have a great significance for Faroese economy, though, because it represents a quarter of the meat consumption in the Faroes. If the Faroese would stop eating this food, they would have to replace it. They could certainly not replace it with crops from local agriculture with only 2.14% arable land available and an inhospitable climate, which makes it almost impossible to grow anything edible on the islands. Notice the treeless landscape.
They would have to catch a lot more fish – or kill other animals in their (ocean) area, in order to export these goods and thus be able to afford importing more of other foods, like the fruits and vegetables, foreigners seem so eager to force the Faroese to eat more of.
Fruits and vegetables don’t just magically appear in the supermarket. They have to be imported – and for what? The Faroese have to earn money by using the resources available. The Faroese would have to catch a lot more fish – or kill a lot more other animals in their (ocean) area, so they could export these goods and thus be able to afford importing more of other foods, like the fruits and vegetables, foreigners seem so eager to force the Faroese to eat more of.
Either way, animals will have to be killed in order for the Faroese to survive in their environment, which – as I already stated – is quite inhospitable most of the year, because there is nothing else to live of there.
Veganism is not an option for everyone
You have to understand the context – how everything is woven together.
If all killing of animals suddenly would be prohibited, it would not be possible to inhabit all arctic and subarctic areas in the world, This would have dire consequences for all the people living in these colder areas, because everyone there is dependent upon the killing of animals – fish, seals, whales, bisons, reindeer…. either for their own consumption or for export, so they can import fruits and vegetables. People of the north could not afford any fruits or vegetables, unless they exported killed animals of some sorts. See?
Millions of people would have to be deported from these cold areas to more southern areas with a warmer climate, where crops can be grown, which probably would cause total chaos in the world, now that we already have a refugee crisis.
Is this a scenario we should wish for? What about just letting the people in the north live their lives in peace the way they have been living it peacefully for centuries. They are not the monsters people seem to imagine them to be. They are just trying to survive and adapt to their environment as best as they can.
The local food available to you is intrinsic to your culture as a whole – and it cannot be considered other than cultural imperialism, when outsiders invade a country (which happened in the summer of 2014) – in numbers equivalent to a million foreigners invading, for instance, Britain or France – trying to interfere with people’s lives there, soiling them with smear campaigns in the world media, making all kinds of efforts to prevent them from eating the food they’ve always been eating, and from surviving the way they have to, because of the environment they live in and of.
It cannot be considered anything other than cultural imperialism to go to a foreign country you have no relation to, telling the people there, that they should live in ways, that are not natural to them, and demanding that they should live a life that belongs to a whole other climate and a whole other environment.
Well, I could say a lot more about this, but that’s it for now.
Here are the links I promised:
My article about Faroese food culture:
“If we loose our food, we loose who we are”
Another article I wrote about the Grindstop 2014 campaign:
“Cultural Clashes Make the SSCS Grindstop Campaign Counterproductive”
The article written by New Foundlander, Ford Elms:
“Nature – not just something to be visited, but a home where people provide sustenance for themselves”
And last but not least, the short documentary about a Fulmar Hunter, made by Ed Ou and Elise Coker, from VICE, who visited the Faroes this summer:
Hope this is useful for you.
Elin Brimheim Heinesen