A rare earth mining project in Greenland has reignited dreams of the autonomous arctic territory’s full independence from Denmark, but environmentalists fear that large-scale mining could harm the remote island’s pristine landscape.
The planned project has also wreaked political havoc.
On Tuesday, Greenland’s parliament voted in favor of new elections at an as-yet undecided date in the spring, after a junior party quit the coalition government over disagreement about the mine.
Greenland, which obtained ownership of its mineral reserves when it gained self-rule in 2009, has long harbored hopes that the riches believed to be buried in the ground would help it cut its financial umbilical cord to Copenhagen.
Nuuk relies on annual Danish subsidies of about 526 million euros (US$638 million), or about one-third of its national budget.
The proposed mine in Kuannersuit, or Kvanefjeld in Danish, on the island’s southern edge could yield a massive windfall that would supplement its main industry, fishing.
However, all that glitters is not gold, opponents of the project say, concerned that the mine could harm the environment.
Attracted by the island’s natural resources and geopolitical relevance, then-US president Donald Trump in 2019 offered to buy Greenland — a bid rebuffed by Denmark as “absurd” — while China is investing in projects in the territory.
In 2010, Greenland Minerals, an Australian company backed by Chinese group Shenghe, obtained an exploration license for the Kuannersuit deposit.
The vein is considered one of the world’s richest in uranium and rare earth minerals — a group of 17 metals used as components in high-tech devices such as smartphones, flat-screen displays, electric vehicles and weapons.
Environmentalists worry about the impact of large-scale mining, especially radioactive waste that would be generated by the mine.
After three successive refusals, Greenland Minerals’ environmental protection plan was approved in September last year, paving the way for public hearings required before a license can be issued.
The hearings began early this month and are due to last until June, but controversy erupted from the start when some local government ministers received death threats and did not attend.
Police have not disclosed any details about which ministers were targeted, nor by whom.
Just a few days later, the Greenlandic government lost its majority in parliament after the Demokraatit party quit the coalition, frustrated by indecision on the issue from the largest party, social democratic Siumut.
“The mine issue was the last straw,” University of Nuuk political scientist Maria Ackren told reporters by telephone from the Greenlandic capital.
Siumut was initially in favor of the project, but has adopted a more reserved line since November last year, when Erik Jensen was elected as the party’s leader, replacing Kim Kielsen, who remains the head of the Greenlandic government.
“We are at a pivotal moment with a new generation at the head of Siumut and the Kvanefjeld project is creating tension,” said Mikaa Mered, a professor of geopolitics at the Paris Institute of Political Studies.
Denmark, which maintains control over currency, foreign relations and defense policy, supports Greenland’s quest for full independence and has not commented on the debate wracking the territory.
Torben Andersen, a professor of economics at the University of Aarhus, said that the mining project alone would not be enough to make Greenland financially self-sufficient.
“Economic development requires a broader base, and mining and tourism are the potential pillars in such a process,” said Andersen, who also chairs Greenland’s Economic Council.
Yet those two industries could prove to be a tricky combination.
Mining projects could damage Greenland’s reputation as a tourist destination, “especially if tourism is targeting customers with a strong preference for ‘nature,’” he said.
However, there is “no realistic scenario which does not involve mining activities” if Greenland is to have a solid financial income, Andersen said.
“Smaller projects may be easier” to combine with tourism, he said.
A possible change of government could delay a final decision on Kuannersuit — and potentially bury it.
Opposition party Inuit Ataqatigiit, which is opposed to the mining project, is leading public opinion polls, while 141 non-governmental organizations have called on Greenland’s government, Denmark and the EU to declare a moratorium on large-scale mining, and oil and gas drilling in Greenland in favor of creating an arctic sanctuary.
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