Greenland’s long road to independence

11 Mins read

In a tumultuous Brexit climate, Greenland is gathering forces to leave its Danish ties behind and achieve full independence from Denmark.

Rising temperatures are shape-shifting Greenland’s landscape, uncovering an immense wealth of minerals, attracting more fish and making the summer season longer; all of which can generate more revenue for a more prosperous and developed economy, potentially Greenland’s key to independence.

So will Greenland ever become independent?

Greenland is the biggest island in the world with a territory that covers 836,330 square miles. Roughly 80% of it is covered by ice, making it impossible to use that land commercially.

The island’s GDP is not independently large enough for its 56,000 inhabitants: “Denmark contributes a yearly grant of £400 million,” explains Ana Luis Andrade, Nordic Analyst for The Economist.

However, with recent rising temperatures and rapid melting of the ice sheets, new ways of life are emerging, raising concerns about whether Greenland can tap into its immense wealth of natural resources without having environmental and political consequences?

Throughout the 17th century, Danish explorers arrived in Greenland; the Danish and Norwegian crown quickly claimed sovereignty, but by 1814, due to Norway’s weak status, Greenland became entirely Danish and was integrated to the crown under the constitution of 1953.

As an official Danish province, it became part of the EU in 1973, and six years later Greenland was granted limited self-government and their own parliament.

In 1985, Greenlanders voted to leave the EU due to the disputes over fishing rights, and in 2008, a self-government act was passed, which transferred more power from the Danish crown to their own politicians.

Typical colourful Greenlandic houses

Ilulissat is a coastal town in Western Greenland, known for its fjord and picturesque views [Flickr:Lisa Ouellette]

Since then “Greenland has been gradually assuming responsibility for their domestic policies; however, Denmark still administers Greenland’s defence, foreign and monetary policy,” explains Andrade. This makes it nearly impossible for Greenland to survive without Denmark.

In October 2018, some of Greenland’s politicians reached a coalition agreement to form a new government, sparked by the left-wing pro-independence party, Naleraq, quitting the previous coalition formed by the social democratic party, Siumut. The Naleraq-Siumut division was caused by the disagreement over the funding of an upgrade for Greenland’s airport.

The Naleraq party, pro-independence, stands against Denmark’s financial participation in the airport project. Kim Kielsen, Greenland’s prime minister, stated that the new coalition formed with the liberal-conservative and the separative parties stands stronger than ever and has put fishing and mining of raw materials at the top of the agenda.

[pullquote align=”right”]“Copenhagen props up the Greenlandic economy with a block grant each year and provides crucial security, search and rescue capabilities in Greenland.”
– Nic Craig [/pullquote]“Siumut and Kim Kielsen are trying to signal investors that they are committed to their pro-business, pro-mining and pro-uranium platform,” Mikaa Mered, arctic expert, and professor at the Ileri Institute in Paris told Reuters.

This leaves talks of independence off of the priority list. Denmark’s support will ensure no Chinese interference in the project, which seems to be a long-standing fear for the Danish government as it could affect Danish-American relations.

Nic Craig, energy, climate change and policy initiative lead for Polar research in Copenhagen, believes that Greenland still needs Denmark: “Copenhagen props up the Greenlandic economy with a block grant each year and provides crucial security, search and rescue capabilities in Greenland.”

He also believes that Denmark benefits from Greenland, as without it, it loses its Arctic identity, which directly affects the chances of sitting around the Arctic council table with superpowers like the US, Russia and Canada.

“Greenland is particularly important for Danish-American relations, as it is of strategic importance for NATO and the US military, which operates on Greenland. It is rumoured that this is how Denmark often gets away with paying less than 2% NATO contribution,” Craig says. But that’s another story.

The current political climate seems to be working well for both countries, as they both gain from the relationship, however, is it an equal benefit? “Greenland is free to become independent whenever it wishes to do so but knows that this would mean the end of the block grant and security and SAR arrangements,” explains Craig.

Most political parties agree on independence as a goal to strive for, and there is only a minority proposing an actual date by which the country should become independent.

It seems that it’s not a question of whether to be independent or not, but how. With a brittle economy, huge territory, small population, and a hostile climate, how can Greenland exploit all its natural resources and consequently divorce from Denmark? The answer relies on strengthening the economy, and this can be done by focusing on fishing and mining, and that is where climate change is critical.

Fishing boats in harbor

Fishing Boats in Ilulissat Harbor, Greenland [Flickr:Terry Feuerborn]

When it comes to fishing, warmer waters are welcoming new species of fish to the area, like tuna, herring, and mackerel as well as the usual cod and halibut, positioning Greenland as an attractive exporter. “Fishing is a significant pillar of the Greenlandic economy and forms 92% of Greenland’s exports,” says Craig.

However, Greenland’s largest catch; prawns, are moving further north seeking colder waters. Even if the fishing possibilities are increasing, the lack of manpower is limiting as there is not a big enough local workforce to get the job done.

In 2017, Royal Greenland, one of the country’s largest companies, was forced to import migrant labour from China. With an unemployment rate of roughly 10%, the state-owned company’s decision to import foreign labour was met with disagreements, exposing another challenge Greenland is facing: Greenlandic workers are thought to be unreliable.

Royal Greenland has released comments that detail their struggle to motivate employees to show up to work during the spring and summer season as the days are long and their ‘fishing to survive’ culture is too ingrained in their identity. Meaning that many accept the job only until they make enough money to finance their hunting and fishing trips.

[pullquote align=”right”]“Fishing is a significant pillar of the Greenlandic economy and forms 92% of Greenland’s exports”
– Nic Craig[/pullquote]This ambiguity between wanting to modernise the country is met with mixed feelings. A proportion of the indigenous population is happy to continue with their traditional ways and isn’t ready to balance between wage work and subsistence practices.

With the ice cover retreating, breathtaking landscapes are being uncovered, revealing better farming possibilities and what’s perhaps most attractive economically – an immense wealth of uranium, zinc, iron and gold. With a combination of a virgin and geologically fertile environment with valuable deposits, the potential for mining is clear.

The government’s 2014-18 Oil and Mineral Strategy, set a high ambition for growth in the sector, which has not come to fruition, with only a handful of small mines in operation in the country at present,” explains Craig. Polar connection records show that the industry has run at a loss every year between 2012-16 and whilst the new government is committed to expanding the mining industry, some aspects must be considered first.

Due to the lack of workforce, large-scale mining is most likely to be led by foreign companies, which would result in tax revenues and limited local jobs for Greenlanders. The lack of infrastructure means the costs of exploration, and operation would be costly.

Mining will also have an impact on the environment which is a concern as Greenland relies on its natural resources and ecosystem to become a stronger and more independent country. On top of that, “mines have limited lifetime, which means the potential to benefit the economy in a long-term economically sustainable way must be questioned,” says Craig.

Greenlandic mountains

East Greenland offers huge areas of unspoilt scenery [Flickr:Mads Phil – Visit Greenland]

An Australian company, Greenland Minerals, and Energy, in co-operation with China’s Shenghe Resources, is in the process of ticking all boxes for its Kvanefjeld proposal. It is a project for an open-pit mine for rare earth minerals with the potential of becoming one of the largest mines in the world but also to potentially poison south Greenland’s environment with foreign meddling, radioactive waste, and a considerable footprint.

The Kvanefjeld project has more than one billion tonnes of mineral resources, making it an extremely tempting deal for the Greenlandic government. Assessments are being made to identify and eliminate the negative environmental impacts throughout the length of the project, currently set to last 37 years. However, no clear information as to whether the impact is more significant than the benefit has been released yet.

Greenlanders are expressing their concerns over the situation, Aviaja Lyberth Hauptmann, a local researcher at the Institute of Health Science at the University of Greenland expressed her concern: “Large-scale mining or uranium is a great example of how we will need to compromise environmental concerns if we insist on independence any time soon. I am very much against it.

“I hope that we can put aside the focus on independence for now and focus instead on what kind of society we dream of in Greenland.” It’s clear that the consequences that mining could have on the environment haven’t been fully explored, and not doing so could create serious long-term problems for the country.

According to a report published by the committee for Greenlandic mineral resources to the benefit of society at the University of Copenhagen, if mineral resources are to become the key element to Greenland’s economic boost, it will be on a completely different scale. Regardless of how the potential projects are managed, they will have both positive and negative effects. No matter the level of income produced, increased mining activities provide an opportunity for change, not to preserve society as it is today. And change must happen gradually.

[pullquote align=”right”]”I hope that we can put aside the focus on independence for now and focus instead on what kind of society we dream of in Greenland.”
– Aviaja Lyberth Hauptmann[/pullquote]The traditional Inuit lifestyle is being threatened by warmer temperatures as hunting possibilities are reduced. Less snow and ice means polar bears and seals are moving north seeking colder weather. Greenland and ice go hand-in-hand, so what will happen when there’s no more ice in Greenland?

“Greenlandic communities are noticing changing availability of marine mammals, particularly an increase in narwhals but fewer whales of many other species. Thinner sea ice makes it more difficult to hunt seals. Traditional livelihoods and subsistence are affected with the usefulness of traditional knowledge being undermined,” explains Dr Ilan Kelman, Reader in Risk, Disasters, and Global Health jointly appointed between IRDR and Institute for Global Health, IRDR Graduate Advisor.

However, some locals see climate change as having some benefits for Greenland: “The environmental changes mean that children can play in the streets without gloves. In western Greenland, the sun will return earlier in the spring as the glacier to the east melts and so diminishes in height. Conversely, less snow and earlier melting leads to garbage being visible in the streets, which is not good for visitors. More crevasses appear in melting glaciers which is dangerous for tourists,” says Kelman.

The impact on Greenlanders’ livelihoods is seen by some as having some positives, particularly when it comes to the increase of tourism opportunities.

“Many Greenlanders suggest that climate change will have little impact on their day-to-day business, mainly because they trust in their own adaptiveness and ability to innovate. In contrast, others worry that the lethargy and lack of initiative regarding livelihoods in many places will be compounded if current businesses fail due to climate change or if people cannot adjust – including being unable to adjust to higher incomes that comes with increasing tourism. Additionally, traditional knowledge will become less relevant. Irrespective of climate change, one main concern around Greenland is the brain drain from smaller to larger communities and away from Greenland,” says Kelman whose colleagues have collected stories from Greenlanders on the website Many Strong Voices.

Agriculturally, Greenland is seeing new possibilities flourish. Being highly dependent on food imports, increased agricultural land means Greenland will slowly be able to produce its own food, mostly in the south, where potato and sheep farming are growing slowly but steadily.

Longer summers also mean more tourists. However, tourism still represents a minor part of Greenland’s economy. Access to Greenland usually involves a combination of flight and ship, making it expensive and only accessible to some. “With the reduction in sea ice cover, the cruise industry proliferated in the last decade, and the first new york to Greenland cruise was recently announced,” says Craig.

However, cruise tourists sleep and eat on board and only come ashore to experience Greenland’s natural beauty. “Greenland’s economic gain is limited to the collected port fees. With airport expansion on the horizon for Nuuk and Ilulissat, there’s a good promise of a growing tourism industry in Greenland,” says Craig

Cruise ship sailing around Greenland

Arctic Umiaq Line has ships which sail around Greenland. The coastal ship Sarfaq Ittuk is very popular [Flickr:Greenland Travel]

With a large territory, small population and a long list of domestic problems, Greenland need a stable economy to provide for its people and stop social ills, such as their high rates of alcoholism, domestic abuse, and abortion.

Climate change is precipitating an array of changes that will have a direct effect in Greenlandic culture, and the country is not ready to face them. The need for a self-balanced economy is urgent but it seems that breaking away from it so suddenly will not be of much help.

“It is problematic that we have reached a point in our union with Denmark that everyone seems to assume that Greenland will one day be independent. This is not something I think we are in any economic or otherwise position to assume,” says Hauptmann.

She believes rethinking and creating a Greenlandic society which is not built on Danish standards, would be the first step before thinking of becoming independent. It seems that the road to independence is not paved by large-scale mining but a change in the way society works.

“If we become independent any time soon, we will be more than occupied with trying to get the basics of a society to run and we will have to compromise culture and environment. There will be no resources to look into the many exciting and sustainable opportunities that Greenland has such as biotech, ecotourism and other alternative paths to a future of Greenland,” she says.

Nuka's sledge and his 12 dogs

Normally Nuka and his 12 dogs are hunting, but today they have two passengers experiencing Inuit culture [Flickr:Markus Trienke]

Denmark is still actively protecting its interests through Greenland. When the Chinese company, China Communications Construction Company (CCCC), expressed its interest in investing in Greenland’s airport project, Denmark trembled. As they have the final say on national security matters, Denmark objected.

Elsewhere, prime minister Kim Nielsen has recently outlined plans to replace Danish with English as the second language taught in schools. Opposition party, IA, which is pro-independence backs this stance. The PM believes that introducing English as a second language will bring more opportunities to the population.

However, the proposal has created mixed feelings. “I do not know any English-speaking countries that will accept Greenlandic students for free. I know very few families who will be able to pay for education,” says Hauptmann. She believes the decision is simple, Greenlanders benefit from speaking Danish as by doing so, they have access to free education in Denmark.

Even with Danish as a second language, Greenlandic students experience severe cultural shock when they move to Denmark. This results in high rates of dropout. Hauptman believes that eliminating Danish from schools will only make it harder for Greenlanders to take advantage of the benefits Denmark has to offer.

Even though Greenlandic became Greenland’s official language in 2009, Danish is widely spoken, especially amongst the older generation and remains essential in sectors like the government, commerce, and education.

“I worry that the proposal to replace Danish is driven by a political want to move away from Denmark rather than a logical conclusion that it will be better for Greenlanders to speak English,”says Hauptmann.

The Danish prime minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen openly stated in a national assembly that “Denmark is open, wide open, for all young people from Greenland who want to make something of their lives. But, to be able to take that step, they must be able to speak Danish.”

Hauptmann suggests that even if English represent better chances in the global community, education is first, and without Danish, Greenland is giving-up the benefit of high-quality and free education, something most countries don’t have. The proposal is yet to be put in practice but highlights Greenland’s on-going dilemma to whether or not become independent.

Greenland’s road to independence seems to be a long one. There are clear societal issues that need to be handled first together with strengthening the economy before worrying about a full divorce from Denmark, and many are aware of how Greenland was built on Danish foundations and that an abrupt removal could result in serious damage to their society.




Featured Image by Markus Trienke 

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