In a 15-14 vote, Greenland’s parliament voted to overturn the long-standing ban on uranium mining. The Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed in a memo that it supported the decision given that Greenland has maintained control over its mineral resources since 2010. While the decision was close, the lifting of the ban should not come as a huge surprise. In mid-March, Greenland elected the social-democratic Siumut party, which had vowed to overturn the uranium mining ban. According to Northern Miner, the government had visited operating uranium mines in Alberta and had also met with First Nations leaders in Canada to talk more about the process. If the mining goes forward and is profitable, Greenland will be one step closer to achieving political dependence from Denmark. Even the MFA notes that the decision could “potentially have far-reaching implications for foreign, defense and security.” Yet the decreasing dependence of Nuuk from Copenhagen perhaps comes only with increasing dependence on foreign investment and unpredictable commodities cycles.
The decision angered many Greenlanders, including a taxi driver who verbally abused two pro-mining politicians who got in his cab after the vote. On the article, one commenter wrote (in Danish), “15 Greenland political mandates should be reported for the People’s Court of the United Nations, for assault on half of the population in Greenland and with possible global pollution as a result.” Another commenter worried that Greenland will soon have “radioactive ice sheets,” mentioning that plutonium is already polluting the inland waters in western Greenland near the U.S. Air Base in Thule due to a U.S. aircraft accident in 1968. Notably, former Greenland Prime Minister and current head of the Inuit Ataqatigiit party, Kuupik Kleist, missed the vote due to commitments in the U.S. Many Greenlanders viewed this as irresponsible behavior given that the vote was so crucial to Greenland’s future.
While the decision is also upsetting to environmental organizations such as the WWF and Greenpeace, certain media outlets are also portraying it as saddening. The Independent opens its article on the separate decision to grant London Mining company a 30-year license to build an open-cast iron ore mine with the sentence, “One of the last unspoilt countries on Earth has caved in to economic pressures and struck a ground-breaking deal with a UK-based company to build and run a giant iron ore mine.”
There are two problems with this statement. First, just because the United Kingdom cut down all its forests in the Middle Ages doesn’t mean that it can keep other seemingly untouched and pristine environments as they are. Greenland is not a recreation park for British kayakers and trekkers to explore with nary a mine in site while the UK goes ahead and builds its first nuclear power plant in a generation – one that may in future consume Greenlandic uranium. NIMBY (not in my backyard”) doesn’t apply here, because quite simply, Greenland is not in the UK’s backyard (leaving aside the Foreign Office’s determination to make the UK a hub for Arctic oil and gas exploration). Although in an ideal world, we would be able to conserve much of the planet’s remaining beauty and resources, statements like the Independent’s reflect a strand of ecological imperialism.
Plus, it’s important to recognize that Greenland’s other industries, like fishing, are collapsing due to climate change. At Arctic Circle, Tønnes (Kaka) Berthelsen, a Greenlandic Inuit and member of the Association of Fishermen and Hunters in Greenland, observed, “More than 90% of the economy is fish-related, and 80% of that is shrimp.” The population of shrimp is declining dramatically due to changing ocean temperatures, while cod is going up – “but there’s lots of cod in other countries.” Thus, climate change is destroying the traditional shrimping economy of Greenland. The fishermen are trying to adapt by doing things like certifying their lumpfish roe for sale in supermarkets in Scandinavia, but the measures only go so far when opportunities in the real powerhouse of Greenland’s economy, shrimping, are drying up. Non-renewable uranium extraction does not seem like a sustainable solution, but in the short term, it will infuse Greenland with jobs and cash, though at the possible cost of untold long-term environmental problems with which future generations will have to contend. But speaking with the present in mind, Greenland’s Prime Minister Aleqa Hammond said upon the vote, “We cannot live with unemployment and cost of living increases while our economy is at a standstill. It is therefore necessary that we eliminate zero tolerance towards uranium now.”
Second, Greenland is not “one of the last unspoilt countries on earth.” A fascinating article called “The Fate of Greenland’s Vikings” from a 2000 issue of Archaeology magazine reads: “As the Greenlanders’ isolation from Europe grew, they found themselves victims of a steadily deteriorating environment. Their farmland, exploited to the full, had lost fertility. Erosion followed severe reductions in ground cover. The cutting of dwarf willows and alders for fuel and for the production of charcoal to use in the smelting of bog iron, which yielded soft, inferior metal, deprived the soil of its anchor of roots. Pollen analysis shows a dramatic decline in these species during the Viking years. In addition, livestock probably consumed any regenerating scrub. Overgrazing, trampling, and scuffing by the Norsemen’s sheep, goats and cattle, the core of the island’s livelihood, left the land debased.”
Of course, that’s not to say that the breadth of environmental destruction in Greenland was as pervasive as what many countries are now doing to their environments: far from it. But viewing some places on earth as pristine, like the Arctic or Amazon, and others as already damaged and thus acceptable to further destruction, is unhelpful to finding actual solutions as to how humans can coexist with their environment everywhere. In Amazonia: The Historical Ecology of a Domesticated Landscape, Clark Erickson describes the massive ways in which indigenous peoples adapted the rainforest and turned into a productive agricultural area with roads, canals, and homes. Erickson writes, “Through the perspective of historical ecology, we see that nature in Amazonia more closely resembles a garden than a pristine, natural wilderness” (p. 200), albeit one that was sustainably managed. Thus, it is possible for humans to dramatically modify the landscape while doing so in a sustainable manner. I, for one, am not sure if uranium mining and nuclear power is a sustainable modification, but Greenland has made its decision.
Consequences for Foreign Investment
This decision to lift the ban on uranium mining comes as good news for Chinese and Australian companies interested in mineral extraction on the world’s largest island. Greenland Minerals and Energy Limited (GMEL), a company based in Western Australia, has operated the Kvanefjeld project in southern Greenland since 2007. GMEL says that it has the “potential to become a resource of genuine global significance,” as it contains a wealth of uranium, zinc, and rare earth deposits. Kvanefjeld actually has the world’s largest deposit of rare earth minerals. The perceived remoteness of Greenland also does not deter GMEL. Their website claims, “While there exists a perception that Greenland is remote, and logistically challenged, there are many inherent benefits to the natural geography of Greenland.” The many deep water fjords carving fingers into the country’s coastline are suitable for deep water ports for shipping in infrastructure and shipping out mineral resources and. Greenland is also centrally located between North America and Europe, both home to important uranium importers. The U.S. obtains over 90% of the uranium used in its nuclear power plants from abroad, mostly from Russia, Canada, Australia, and Kazakhstan. China, too, imports uranium from Central Asia, Russia, and Australia, as do many countries in Europe. France, however, gets most of its uranium from its former colonies in Africa, namely Niger, while Germany’s demand is set to decrease given the ban on nuclear power.
Like any company involved in the Arctic nowadays, the increasing number of foreign actors in Greenland emphasize working with the local population. In southern Greenland, near Kvanefjeld, GMEL gave presentations and held informal forums in the eight settlements around the three major towns of Qaqortoq, Narsaq, and Nanortalik. GMEL reports that the main questions concerned employment opportunities, followed by the environmental and social impacts of the project. Strangely, many southern Greenlanders may therefore have had more recent interactions with businessmen from Australia than civil servants from Denmark. Thus, as Greenland moves farther from Copenhagen, it moves closer to places like Beijing and Western Australia. Representatives from these distant places may actually be more familiar with local demands and needs given their more frequent encounters.
Still, it’s not as if the Australians or Chinese can learn how to work with Greenlanders over night, and this is one place where the Danes may have an advantage given their centuries of interaction. Ole Ramlau-Hansen, former managing director of GMEL, wrote an opinion piece on the difficulty of bridging the culture gap in the Greenlandic newspaper Sermitsiaq in October 2011. He explained, “Cooperation with local businesses and local workforce is our goal, but in all the years I have worked in Greenland, many business leaders from Denmark and abroad (including me) had this noble goal, but the bitter truth is that they very often have broken their neck. It is much harder to achieve that goal than freshly baked Danes and foreigners imagine. Inexperience and lack of deep knowledge of our society and culture is very difficult barriers to come through.”
Now that the legal barrier has been surmounted, the societal, cultural, and environmental barriers will be the next to be tested as Greenlanders – and the world – wait.