Dominica is a speck on the world map, a beautiful Caribbean island smothered in dense volcanic jungle. With a population smaller than a typical British country town and landing space for nothing but the smallest planes, it is off the usual tourist trail.
But the island has found itself at the center of an international power struggle that will reach a climax in London in July. Ministers and diplomats from the world's richest countries have flocked here brandishing open check books, suitcases stuffed with cash - and, in some cases, muttering dark threats. The Caribbean nation may be home to fewer than 70,000 people, but it has one asset that other countries are prepared to pay big money for: a vote on the international body that sets the rules for commercial hunting of whales. With that vote, Dominica has a voice equal in weight to that of the US, the UK or Japan.
Dominica's Ministers have enjoyed a string of overseas trips with lavish VIP treatment normally reserved for royalty. Keen to get a ban on whaling lifted, Japan has flooded the country with cash and aid in the hope that Dominica will vote to allow slaughter to recommence.
In Dominica's hands - and those of a few other small nations - is the future of the world's great whales. Since the International Whaling Commission voted for a ban on whaling in 1982, some species such as minke and sperm have started recovering. The blue whale remains critically endangered.
In its desperate bid to overturn the moratorium and boost its whaling industry, Japan is using offers of aid and the threat of its withdrawal to get support from the world's poorest nations. Now anti-whaling nations and environmental groups are returning fire.
In Roseau, the capital, it is clear who is winning the battle as you sail into the port. Outside the huge new fisheries complex, the flags of Dominica and Japan are flying. At the base of the flags and near a fleet of Toyota lorries, is a plaque: 'Grant aid by the government of Japan as a token of friendship and co-operation between Japan and the Commonwealth of Dominica.'
Japan has recruited six Caribbean nations, as well as the Solomon Islands in the Pacific, and Guinea in Africa, to vote with it in the International Whaling Commission. Under IWC rules, the votes will be allowed at the commission's July meeting in London.
It will show that Japan has assembled a blocking minority, making it impossible for other countries to pass any further conservation measures, such as the creation of a whale sanctuary in the south Pacific, particularly favored by Australia and New Zealand. With the recruitment of a few more countries, Japan could assemble a simple majority, sufficient to change IWC rules to enable the return of commercial whaling.
Japan refutes the allegations of aid-for-votes, but an Observer investigation has revealed the extent of the practice. It has also revealed that Japan is copying the tactics the anti-whalers employed in the late 1970s, enabling them to impose the moratorium in the first place.
For Atherton Martin, Dominica's past Environment and Fisheries Minister, the meeting last year should have been simple. The Japanese ambassador had flown in from Trinidad to talk about whaling, but insisted on tying the subject to aid. As Martin answered that Dominica's priority was renewable energy, the ambassador stared out of the window, and simply said: 'Fisheries'. As part of the strategy to encourage the commercial exploitation of the sea, Japan's preferred method of aid is building fish processing plants.
The ambassador went to Prime Minister Roosevelt Douglas and repeated the offer. In the run-up to last year's IWC meeting in Adelaide, Japanese officials visited Douglas, and threatened to pull the aid if Dominica didn't vote with Japan. When the Cabinet met, it decided to abstain on the sanctuary. But before the vote was cast, Douglas phoned his representative Lloyd Pascal and instructed him to vote with the Japanese.
Martin resigned as Minister. 'It was such a breach of Cabinet trust. For the last 25 years we have been promoting ourselves as "nature island". It is totally incompatible to be seen to promote whaling,' he said. Two months after the vote, Douglas went on a trip to Tokyo to demand the aid be paid.
The Japanese have offered the three former Prime Ministers of Dominica fisheries complexes within their own constituencies. Many senior politicians and officials are wooed to Japan on all-expense paid trips. Pascal, who is now Fisheries Minister, has been on two trips to Japan in the last year. As well as the fisheries complex in Roseau, Japan has given two $76,000 dollar ambulances. On an impoverished island, the few roads are clogged with top-of-the-range reconditioned Toyotas, Hondas and Nissans.
Japan also pays Dominica's £45,000 annual IWC membership fee. Japan denies it, but a Dominican Minister confirmed: 'Put it like this, we make no allocation for it in our national budget.'
Martin said the Japanese threat was explicit: 'They make it clear, that if you don't vote for them, they will have to reconsider the aid. They use money crudely to buy influence.'
At the IWC meetings, Japan follows through its tactics by chaperoning the island's officials. 'They do not allow them free for a moment - not even at cocktail parties. It's disgusting, it's appalling. It's beyond colonial,' said Martin. During the meetings, the Japanese pass notes to the Caribbean officials, and prompt them to speak.
And it's not just Dominica. A total of six island states now support Japan. Last year Antigua, Dominica, Grenada, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, and St Vincent all voted with Japan and against the UK on every whaling issue. 'Small islands are enormously vulnerable to offers of aid. Through extortion with aid, Japan has been able to get many island nations to join the International Whaling Commission and vote its way,' said Martin.
Kate O'Connell, of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, said: 'In this no-holds-barred effort to buy votes and influence, at both regional and international levels, Japan has exploited not only whales, but the needs of developing nations as well.'
Japan is the world's most generous aid donor, and insists there is no connection with whaling votes. Joji Morishita, deputy director of the Japanese Far Seas Fisheries Division, told The Observer: 'No condition has ever been put on aid. We give aid to countries such as India, Peru and Argentina who are anti-whaling. If we were trying to buy votes, they should all vote for us.'
But the uncomfortable truth for environmental groups is that Japan is simply copying the tactics employed to get the ban on whaling through in the first place. Prior to the crucial vote in 1982, countries such as Egypt, Belize, Monaco, Oman, Costa Rica and Senegal were all signed up to the IWC to swell the anti-whaling vote. Just like the Japanese, environmental groups also paid for the membership fees. Ray Gambell, the secretary of the IWC for 25 years, said: 'A lot of governments who joined immediately before 1982 voted for the moratorium in that year. Many are no longer members.' Pierre Charles, Dominica's present Prime Minister, insists he has had no contact with the Japanese, but didn't deny the link. 'I am not commenting on it. No one can put pressure on me.'
Charles is trying to kick-start a stagnant economy. 'Everyone is going on about whaling, whaling, whaling, but what about the poverty we have here? We are a tiny country trying to survive, and all people want to talk about is what way we vote on a whale sanctuary. We have real people with real poverty here,' he said.
And there's the rub. Those who run the country's infant tourist industry insist they make far more money from getting people to watch whales than selling their votes to let the Japanese kill them. Dominica prides itself as the whale-watching capital of the Caribbean. It is one of the few places in the world where you can sit at a seaside restaurant and watch sperm whales jump out of the water in front of you.
Greenpeace campaigner Audrey Cardwell said: 'When you kill a whale you make money for one day, but if you let it live you can make money from taking people out to watch it three times a day for 50 years.'
The lobbying is now reaching boiling point before July's meeting in London. The Japanese have already sent two delegations to Dominica this year. The Environment Minister of New Zealand will shortly tour Caribbean islands. At least that could give Dominica a choice: it could simply sell its vote to the highest bidder.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001