Sitting on vast, untapped reserves of uranium and rare-earth minerals, Greenland holds the keys to massive wealth.
But many Greenlanders have grave doubts about whether they should allow the world to exploit those resources, given the risk that mining could pose to the Arctic territory’s fragile environment.
The remote, snow-covered island sent a clear message to global mining interests this week when voters handed a rare victory to Inuit Ataqatigiit, a democratic socialist party with a 34-year-old leader and an environmental bent. The party, whose name translates to “Community of the People,” had campaigned on halting what was on track to become a massive mining operation in southern Greenland, led by an Australian company and backed by Chinese investment.
“The people have spoken,” Inuit Ataqatigiit’s leader, Mute Egede, told Danish broadcaster DR on Wednesday, pledging that development of the Kvanefjeld mine would come to a stop.
The election results are a blow to China, which mines more than 70 percent of the world’s rare-earth minerals and hopes to maintain its dominance as demand soars. Greenland Minerals, the company behind the mining project, says that Kvanefjeld has the “potential to become the most significant western world producer of rare earths” and could be “a globally significant supplier of rare earths for many decades.” Shenghe Resources Holding Co., one of the world’s largest producers of rare-earth minerals, is the largest shareholder in the company and would also be in charge of the complex task of processing rare earths once they are extracted.
Rare-earth minerals are used to make high-tech devices, including cellphones, flat-screen monitors, electric cars, wind turbines and weapons. Consequently, they have emerged as a key bargaining chip in U.S.-China trade wars, with Beijing threatening in 2019 to cut off exports and bring U.S. manufacturing to an abrupt halt.
The Kvanefjeld mine, if plans proceed, will increase Greenland’s carbon dioxide emissions by a projected 45 percent, according to the Wall Street Journal — a major concern in a part of the world that has already seen unprecedented ice melt due to climate change. Additionally, uranium will be extracted as part of the mining process, leading to concerns about radioactive runoff and waste.
“We risk being left with a country that cannot be used for anything,” Mariane Paviasen, who won a seat in Greenland’s parliament Tuesday as a member of Inuit Ataqatigiit, told DR, “where you cannot hunt or fish because it is all polluted.”
Supporters, including Greenland’s long-dominant, center-left Siumut party, argue that the mine could generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue and create hundreds of jobs, putting the territory in a better position to break away from Denmark. Currently, Greenland is considered a self-governing territory of the small Scandinavian nation, which it relies on for defense and a roughly $624 million annual subsidy that funds basic services. Polling indicates the majority of Greenland’s 57,000 inhabitants hope to move toward independence.
But some Greenlanders see allowing other nations to extract their valuable mineral resources as a new form of colonialism. “It’s the control of less-developed countries by developed countries through indirect means,” Aili Liimakka Laue, who lives near the proposed mine, told NPR.
The Kvanefjeld mining operation was close to clearing its final regulatory hurdles earlier this year when disputes over whether it should go forward triggered the breakup of Greenland’s government and prompted a snap election. Miles Guy, Greenland Minerals’ chief financial officer, told the Wall Street Journal that the company had already invested close to $100 million on the project and that “in our view it would be an extreme display of bad faith to suddenly reverse all that.”
Shutting down the mining operation could send a “counterproductive” message to the world and suggest that Greenland is hostile toward outside investors, warned Dwayne Menezes, the founder and managing director of the Polar Research and Policy Initiative. Inuit Ataqatigiit has not called for a blanket ban on mining, he noted, and its next challenge will be to make clear that Greenland “is still open for business and still just as attractive and stable a jurisdiction for investment.”
The prospect of allowing in foreign mining companies — which would reduce the need to rely on subsidies from Denmark — has been a divisive issue in Greenland for years. In 2013, when Greenland’s parliament overturned its ban on extracting radioactive materials such as uranium, the legislation passed by just one vote.
Erik Jensen, the head of the Siumut party, told Denmark’s TV 2 that he believes the party’s support for the mine was “one of the main reasons” for its defeat in Tuesday’s parliamentary elections, according to the BBC.
Egede now stands to become Greenland’s youngest-ever prime minister. His rapid ascension through the political ranks — he got his start in 2015 when another member of parliament had to take sick leave — has been partially credited to his success at reaching voters through social media. His Instagram account is interspersed with pictures of him being pulled through the snow by a pack of sled dogs and introducing his toddler to Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.”
While Egede told Danish television that his party’s victory meant that the Kvanefjeld mining project was officially dead, it is more likely that it will remain in limbo for the immediate future. Inuit Ataqatigiit secured 37% of the votes in Tuesday’s election and will have to form a governing coalition with other parties, some of which might insist on holding a referendum on the issue.
In addition to Greenland potentially holding the largest reservoir of rare-earth minerals outside China, its strategic position between the United States and Russia in the Arctic Circle means that it is increasingly in the sights of major world powers. In 2019, President Donald Trump pushed top aides to see whether it would be possible for the United States to purchase the territory from Denmark. (It wasn’t for sale.) And while the United States has been building up its military arsenal at Thule Air Base, its outpost in northern Greenland, China has been pushing to establish its own presence.
“This is a very clear message from the people of Greenland to China and to the world: economic development, even if it allows Greenland to become independent, does not justify the destruction of the environment,” Mikaa Mered, a lecturer on Arctic affairs at HEC business school in Paris, told the French news outlet Liberation.
She noted that voters between 18 and 60 mainly supported Inuit Ataqatigiit and its call to halt the mining project, while those over 60 were more likely to side with Siumut and its push to make Greenland financially independent.
By voting against mining interests, Greenlanders also sent a message to the United States and European nations that see the island as a “treasure trove of resources,” Mered said.