Green turn for the Green Island

[Illustration by Alessia Angelini]

The elections held on April 6 in Greenland may be crucial for Greenland’s future.

The opposition Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA) has beaten the Siumut Social Democrats who have dominated Greenlandic politics since 1979. At the heart of the election campaign consisted of the opposition to a gigantic project of rare earth and uranium mining. According to the official figures, the Inuit Ataqatigiit have obtained 36,6% of the votes, while Siumut have stuck at 29,4%. In third place was the centrist Naleraq party with 12%, while the center-right Democrats stopped at 9%.

The vote totals have allowed the left-wing environmentalist party – the Inuit Ataqatigiit – to grab 12 seats in the 31-member unicameral legislature (the Inatsisartut). On 8 April the leader of IA, Mute Egede, began negotiations with other parties to form the new government. On 16 April it was announced that IA had successfully negotiated a coalition agreement with fellow pro-independence party Naleraq. According to local political site Qinersineq, over 41 thousand votes cast – out of about 56,225 inhabitants – have been counted.

For the second time in the history of Greenland, on April 6 2021, environmentalists have beaten the Social Democrats. They have done so by fighting against the opening of the Kvanefjeld mine, located south of the capital Nuuk off the Canadian coast, which in February had brought down the government. The project concerned one of the world’s largest resources of uranium and rare earths. The vote rewarded the Greens, who opposed it, arguing that authorizing the gigantic project to extract rare earths and uranium would damage the island’s pristine environment.

The Kvanefjeld project

The project that caused a political crisis in February and the early election for the 31 seats of the local parliament concerns rare earths and uranium in the south of the island of Kuannersuit. The central issue on which the voters have been called to express themselves with these early parliamentary elections is the fate of the enormous deposits of uranium and rare earths discovered in the area called Kvanefjeld. Rare earths are indispensable for the production of cell phones, mobile telecommunications networks, computers, electronics. The term “rare” does not indicate their scarcity, but the high concentration in a few areas of the planet. The mine could have increased the island’s budget by about € 200 million, according to Greenland Minerals, but would cut Danish annual subsidies by half as a result of a revenue-sharing agreement with Copenhagen. Supporters of the project saw the mine as a source of jobs and a guarantee of economic growth on the island.

On the other hand, it would also have endangered the local ecosystem and generated toxic waste. For this reason, the people of Greenland opposed the excavations. First, they have demonstrated in front of parliament and then have led the country to early elections, guiding the left-wing environmental Inuit Ataqatigiit party to victory. Siumut party leader Erik Jensen said that the project would have helped Greenland’s economy, based on fishing and tourism, making possible the step from the status of autonomous territory to independence with full sovereignty.

Climate change in the Arctic is both a curse and a blessing for Greenland. On the one hand, it threatens the traditional lifestyles of Greenland and its almost entirely Inuit population. The retreat of sea ice in fact reduces the season for hunters who work there with dog sleds. On the other hand, the warmer waters also involve the arrival of new species of fish, while on land it is expected that the melting of the ice will bring to light a large number of minerals. Greenland, in fact, is increasingly affected by the effects of global warming, losing approximately 280 billion tons of ice every year, with this value increasing year by year. The Arctic has been heating up at twice the rate of the rest of the planet since the 1990s. Yet, Greenland has not signed the Paris climate agreements, but Inuit Ataqatigiit has pledged to do so if it would have won the elections.

A worldwide affair

Never as this time do the elections affect the world powers. Among superpowers, China and the US,  are particularly oriented towards the green island for different reasons.  China has large energy and mining interests. During the Trump administration, the US wanted to buy the island from Denmark and offered to help Denmark in the construction of three new airports in Greenland to get ahead of China. Behind the Inuit opposition to the project, there is the fear of the growing geopolitical economic aims of China and Russia towards Greenland.

World supplies of rare earths are dominated by China, which holds most of the deposits of these minerals. For this reason, the resources of the Arctic region are becoming increasingly important worldwide, especially for the West, which would like to break away from its dependence on China. However, even in this case, the fact that a rare earth deposit is physically outside the Chinese territories does not mean that it is outside Chinese influence. Actually, the company which obtained the license for the mine – the Australian Greenland Minerals – was supported by the Chinese group Shenghe.

Conclusions

The elections are tangible witnesses to the effects of the climate and the concerns for the environment of people who have a deep link with their land and its conservation. We hope that what has happened in Greenland would have effects on other societies and will inspire more people in the world.

It is not common to choose values over interests. It gives hope that despite the international interests in the deposits of Greenland, the local populations have chosen not to take advantage of it, and have not given in to the flattery of the foreign powers.

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