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18th Jan 2020

Greenlanders go to the polls as interest rises in the Arctic island

  • The island has been described as the size of a continent with the population of a village (Photo: Marina and Enrique)

Greenlanders go to the polls on Tuesday (12 March) in a vote that will attract an inordinate amount of outside interest for a semi-autonomous territory of just 57,000 people.

The interest is largely due to climate change. The melting ice in the Arctic has opened up new shipping routes and made it easier to access natural resources, in abundance on Greenland.

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Investors are lining up to try and exploit reserves of oil, gas, iron ore, aluminum and rare earths.

"There is a lot of valuable goods that should be taken out of nature up there," says Jan Fritz Hansen, deputy director of the Danish shipowners’ association.

The external interest coincides with Greenlanders' aspirations to become completely independent of Denmark, for which they need their own revenues.

"It will be very interesting to see the result of the election," says Damien Degeorges, Greenland expert and founder of the Arctic Policy and Economic forum.

He suggests that Greenland has "been underestimated regarding future developments in the Arctic."

Voters will be choosing between the current leftist leader Kuupik Kleist and his opposition challenger Social Democrat Aleqa Hammond.

How to deal with the resource riches has been a major issue in the campaign, with Greenland now having full rights over it natural resources as part of a recent self-rule deal with Copenhagen.

Kleist has been accused by the opposition of being too ready to embrace business and foreign interests. But he argues it is time for Greenland to live up to the global role its natural riches have given it.

"The fear of being overrun by foreigners is exaggerated," he told Reuters news agency. "We are becoming a global player. We need to avoid ethnicity, nationalistic feelings."

Hammond has countered that "people feel that they are not part of the decision-making process of big scale projects and mining."

Although there is only one operating mine on Greenland, its authorities have ratcheted up the number of mineral exploratory licences to 150. A decade ago there were fewer than 10.

The potential exploitation of resources could bring Greenlanders great riches, but also environmental damage and social change.

A planned mine at the Isua iron ore deposit would see millions on tonnes of iron shipped each year to China. The number of outside workers it would need is set to bump up Greenland’s population by four percent.

US giant Alcoa has for several years being trying to set up an aluminum smelting plant in Maniitsoq. It wants to hire thousands of Chinese workers at less than the local minimum wage.

Rare earths and China

But it is the potential exploitation of rare earths that has the most strategic interest and potential for diplomatic upset.

China currently has a global monopoly in rare earths, used to make a range of products from smart phones, to hybrid cars, telescope lenses, and military equipment.

Access to Greenland's resources would cement this. The EU is anxious to make sure it is not left behind.

Last year Brussels signed a memorandum of understanding with Nuuk on access to raw materials. Greenland has large deposits of 6 of the 14 rare earth seen as important to EU industry.

But with the EU not firming up on the deal, Kleist has made it clear that he will have no problem looking elsewhere for investment. And he is not short of suitors.

High interest

Last year alone, the President of South Korea visited the island while Kleist also met the then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and was present at a dinner to mark a first ever visit by a Chinese president to Denmark - a visit seen as having Greenland as a clear subtext.

When Ove Karl Berthelsen, in charge of Greenland's natural resources, went to China in 2011, he was given the red carpet treatment by Vice-Premier Li Keqiang, now set to be premier.

"You saw a huge shift in international interest in Greenland since 2010 when it took over the full management of its natural resources," says Degeorges.

But the fact that Greenland is in a "state-building" process makes it potentially vulnerable, he suggests.

"There are 44 politicians running Greenland, 9 ministers, 31 MPs and four mayors with a territory that has everything to attract everyone."

China is interested in Greenland for its resources. But Greenland is also a gateway to the Arctic with melting ice making Arctic shipping routes look increasingly economically viable.

Economic control of Greenland, say some observers, could give it de facto seat at the table of the Arctic Council, a body of Arctic states dealing with the area.

Some dispute this. They say China’s interest in Greenland is economic rather than geopolitical.

"For me there is a lot of exaggeration about China,” says Rasmus Ole Rasmussen, an Arctic affairs expert at Stockholm's Nordregio institute.

“These rare minerals have been there all the time and there have been research into whether or not it would be profitable to exploit them or not. And, so far, it has not been profitable,” he adds.

But still Greenland – with its traditional fishing industry declining – needs to generate actual revenue if it is to make a full break from Denmark.

Copenhagen’s annual contributions to the island have been frozen at around 3.5bn kronar, as part of the self-rule deal. This will shrink in real value over time.

But while they urgently need to generate money, past experience shows they will not be unduly rushed, says Rasmussen.

He points to the Alcoa’s attempts to get the aluminum smelter plant in action.

“Alcoa approached Greenland eight years ago The fact that, so far, they have not managed to get to an agreement illustrates that Greenlanders are not only focused on getting big money from outsiders investors,” says Rasmussen.

“They have been carrying out environment and societal impact studies. I think this illustrates that they are a pretty capable people in Greenland.”

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