Snow and ice cover the rugged mountains of southern Greenland for most of the year, combed by a fierce and constant wind that blows from the sea. It is not until late spring when the thaw reveals the landscape that impressed the explorer in Viking times, Erik the Red, when he discovered an area of fjords with green meadows, hot springs, and the greatest biodiversity of vegetation that can be found in the island.
Today southern Greenland is known as the arctic “barn” because it is the only area on the island where the thaw allows agriculture and the herding of reindeer and sheep on farms. A landscape that has also helped to develop an incipient tourism sector attracted by the ancient Viking and Inuit vestiges of Kujataa, protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.RELATED
It is in the subsoil of this remote and fragile ecosystem that the largest unexploited deposits of rare earths in the world have been discovered: a set of 18 key mineral elements for the manufacture of mobile phones, electric cars, wind turbines and weapons. Currently in Greenland there are 90 active mining licenses, but in the last year international attention and controversy has been raised with the Kuannersuit deposit, the second largest known rare earth mine in the world, located a few kilometers from the town of Narsaq, in the south of the island.
Experts and local environmental groups warn of the serious ecological impact of this project, since the extraction of minerals would also extract a significant amount of uranium. “Radioactive dust and debris would affect fishing, agriculture and livestock in the area,” warns Niels Henrik Hooge, NOAH member in Denmark. According to environmental impact reports, the Kuannersuit project would involve a 45% increase in Co2 emissions in Greenland, a factor that adds to the year after year retreat of the permanent ice sheet on the island.
From Narsaq the activist Gretha Nielsen, a member of the organization Urani? Naamik (“no to uranium”), says: “The operating company tells us that the project will bring wealth and jobs for the community, but we know of the negative impact of uranium mines in other parts of the world and we are afraid that this too come here “.
In recent months, the debate over the role of mining in Greenland’s economy has intensified, becoming one of the main reasons for the move forward in the early April elections.
Despite the fact that Greenland has a self-governing government, it continues to be part of Denmark, a country that colonized the Arctic island 300 years ago. In 2009, the Danish Parliament approved the new Statute of Autonomy, which recognizes the right to self-determination and gives the Government of Nuuk full powers in the management of strategic areas such as the exploitation of natural and mining resources, while defense and foreign policy continue to be directed from Copenhagen.
However, the yearnings for independence of most political parties and Greenlanders collide head-on with the economic reality of the island, which today makes its self-sufficiency a goal that is still far from being achieved: Greenland depends almost exclusively on two sources of income. income: fishing (which represents 90% of exports) and the annual contribution of 500 million euros by Denmark, which is almost half of the public budget.
“In recent years the debate has revolved around the most intense exploitation of natural resources,” explains political scientist and researcher at the University of Copenhagen, Kristian Søby: “Until now, the social democratic Siumut party, which had been at the fore of the Executive during 40 years, maintained a favorable position to the mining exploitation, with the aim of diversifying the economy and achieving a greater degree of independence from Denmark “.
But the elections of April 6, which raised as a plebiscite on mining in Kuannersuit, they left a clear message at the polls to international companies interested in Arctic subsoil resources. The leftist, environmentalist and independence Inuit party Ataqatigiit (IA), with 36.6% of the votes, reached a historic result with a clear and firm position against the project: “We have something that money cannot buy, we will do everything possible to stop mining in Kuannersuit, “said the new prime minister, Mute Egede, 34, after forming a coalition government with other progressive forces. “At the moment, everything indicates that the mining project will be stopped, probably for a long time,” predicts Kristian Søby.
The importance of Greenland minerals is in the geostrategic spotlight, especially since China controls and processes more than 70% of the world’s rare earth minerals. The license to develop the Kuannersuit deposit was originally granted in 2007 to the Australian conglomerate Greenland Minerals, whose main shareholder is the Chinese company Shenghe Resources.
“The Kuannersuit mining project represents a medium-term investment that is much larger than Greenland’s GDP as a whole,” explains Jesper Zeuthen, a professor at Aalborg University and an expert on China’s presence in the Arctic region. “Greenland’s political and economic dependence on China is a concern in Denmark, but also in the United States,” says the professor, who thus explains the failed attempt in 2019 by the former president. Donald Trump to “buy” the territory by promising investments millionaires.
If the Kuannersuit project were to go ahead, it would mean that 10% of the world’s rare minerals would be mined in Greenland, the largest deposit outside of China. In addition, the consequences of global warming have opened a ban on world powers to explore new shipping routes that were impossible decades ago because of the ice, and to facilitate access to natural resources such as gas and oil that the Arctic treasures.
“The debate in Greenland is not on whether it should be an independent country, but on how to achieve it,” says Kristian Søby. “Increased international interest, not only in mineral resources, but also in building new infrastructure or developing tourism, bodes well for the aspirations of Greenlanders.”
For activist Gretha Nielsen, the future of her country is on a greener path towards independence: “We have to improve the economy, but also the living conditions of Greenlanders.” According to Nielsen, the priority should be to seek economic alternatives such as agriculture, investment in fishery products or responsible tourism, without losing sight of the balance with caring for the environment: “We cannot base our entire economy on a mining project. next years Greenland should be the key territory for the protection of the Arctic “.