In Russia, fur never went out of fashion. Descendants of Cossack traders became "Old Settlers" and continued to trade for furs. More settlers and peasants arrived in northern areas after the revolution, increasing pressure on habitats and animal populations. Native people often did not trade furs unless they were given a good deal, including friendly arrangements with traders such as hospitality and credit, and when these conditions were not met by traders under the new system, the fur trade broke down. Quality trade items were hard to come by. Trappers often had more freedom than fishers or herders, because if they did not like the terms of trade, they could return to subsistence pursuits, and were hard for the state to control or collectivize. Because furs brought in hard currency for the state, they maintained the fur trade despite political inconsistencies. There were some instances where the state fur-trading agency tried to foil native trappers, such as a scheme in the 1930s that closed areas to trappers and allowed for complete extermination of animals on the "reserve." The venture was exposed as injurious to long-term state and native interests (Slezkine, 1994: 213). According to Slezkine, the Soviet fur trade remained a steady link between the world economy and peoples of the North, despite not fitting into Soviet ideologies.
Russia remains a major consumer of furs, exporting few furs due to high domestic demand. In 2000, China surpassed Russia as the greatest consumer of fur with
Korea following as its economy improves (Parker, 2002). Still, European and American prices are higher than the Asian markets, and although prices have recovered since the lows of the early 1990s, costs of trapping make wild fur harvest barely viable in North America.
Fur is slowly returning to fashion stages of Europe, regardless of the latest political controversies. In 1996, the European Union tried to ban the import of any furs caught in leghold traps. The ban was suspended, and was overturned by the World Trade Organization in 1999, on the grounds that it is illegal to distinguish products based on how they are produced. Canada had already agreed to adopt regulations for the use of more humane traps—an additional expense for trappers.
A phenomenon of greater concern than politics to the fur market is global warming. Pelts do not thicken to "prime" grade without cold weather. More significant for the trade, people do not buy fur coats in mild winters.
As indigenous communities of the circumpolar North seek sustainable economies, fur is likely to continue to play a role. However, the availability of wage labor and the high cost of harvesting on the land reduce incentives to trap. Competition from farmed furs and uncertainties of climate, politics, and fashion are likely to keep market prices too low for a return to the glory years of the northern fur trade. It is unlikely that fur will again be the primary link of northern communities to the world economy, as it was in the period of colonization and in many decades since.
Deborah B. Robinson
See also Fur Trade, History in Russia; Hudson's Bay Company; North West Company; Trapping
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