Wednesday

28th Jul 2021

Greenland election could see halt to rare-earth mining

  • Kuannersuit - a site of mineral deposit in the south of Greenland (Photo: Merete Lindstrøm Sermitsiaq.AG)

Late Tuesday (6 April) evening, expectant Greenlanders received the election results for Inatsisartut, Greenland's parliament.

The left-wing Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA) celebrated as it became clear they had gained a clear majority.

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Since Greenland held its first election in 1979, the social democratic party Siumut has been in power, with only one exception of four years.

So it was a historical result that Greenlanders woke up to on Wednesday.

Unprecedented global interest

The reason for the change can be found in Kuannersuit - a site of mineral deposits in the south of Greenland.

According to the US Geological Survey, Greenland has the world's largest undeveloped deposit of rare-earth minerals.

These minerals are essential components in green technology, so demand is on the rise, leading to global interest in securing a stable supply-chain as a part of green transition.

A report published last year by the European Commission exposed Europe's needs in this sector. As it stands now, China controls around 80 percent of the supply for rare-earth minerals.

In Kuannersuit, the Australian-owned Greenland Minerals has been operating since 2007.

Among its largest shareholders is the Chinese firm Shenghe Resources Holding, with 10.5 percent of the shares.

Earlier this year, EUobserver revealed that Greenland Minerals had declared wishes to export all potential outputs of rare earths from Kuannersuit to Europe, and not China, as had been feared.

Kuannersuit has been seen as an opportunity for Western global players to challenge China's near monopoly on rare-earth minerals - and the Greenland election found itself getting unprecedented global attention.

Colonial history

To understand the election result, it is also essential to understand Greenland's history of colonial ties to Denmark, according to Javier Arnaut, assistant professor at the Ilisimatusarfik University in Greenland.

For several years, Arnaut focused his research on mineral mining and economic and institutional development in Greenland.

Just before the election, a poll revealed that 63 percent of those asked were against this specific mining project in Kuannersuit. The IA party leader, Múte B. Egede, promised that a vote for IA would be a vote to put mining activities in Kuannersuit on hold.

"Greenland is a country with an independent cultural heritage; inuit history; its own language etc. We must understand the natural Greenlandic need for also obtaining financial independence from its colonial ties with Denmark. And financial independence is something to which the mining industry could offer new opportunities," Arnaut said.

But for her part, the Greenlandic MP representing IA in the Danish parliament does not agree with this position.

Aaja Chemnitz Larsen argues that other paths must be fully examined.

"In IA, we do not believe in a quick-fix for obtaining independence. We believe in a slow process, where Greenland will have the necessary time to adjust to financial independence, through a peaceful and environmentally sustainable solution. As it is now, we have other challenges that must be taken care of first: We have rising inequality and a healthcare system on its knees," Larsen said.

Arnaut added that the focus on Chinese involvement and the global attention might have had an effect at the ballot box.

The idea of a foreign player interfering in Greenlandic affairs might have had an effect on the eventual choice, he said.

Meanwhile, Aki-Matilda Høegh-Dam, the Greenlandic MP representing Siumut in the Danish Parliament, said the premise of the conversation about Kuannersuit was wrong.

"It is a narrow, Western, post-colonial premise to only focus on Kuannersuit and the potential profit - not only for Greenland, but also the potential buyers of the rare minerals," she said.

Arctic diplomacy and independence

According to Arnaut, Greenland finds itself in a dilemma.

The question of independence has come to the fore, as rare-earth minerals opened up a way to reduce dependence on Danish grants.

But the mining site also opened up Greenland to exploitation by other external players.

Høegh-Dam pointed out that further steps still needed to be taken towards stronger independence when it comes to foreign policy.

She is a firm believer in diplomatic reasoning and focus when it comes to the inevitable part played by Greenland in matters of the Arctic on the international scene.

Høegh-Dam described it as remarkable, albeit positive, that, last year, Denmark invited Greenland to participate in the discussions leading up to a visit from the American secretary of state.

Inviting Greenland to discuss matters concerning Greenland's foreign affairs has not been normal protocol for Denmark in the past.

Chemnitz Larsen added that in IA they operate by the motto "Nothing about Greenland, without Greenland".

And that meant that when matters concerning Greenland were discussed, Greenland should be invited to take part in the discussion.

When asked about the EU Commission's initiative in August 2019 inviting stakeholders to advise on the EU's new Arctic Strategy, both Høegh-Dam and Chemnitz sounded very positive.

"The Greenlandic collaborations should be chosen wisely," Chemnitz Larsen added cryptically, however. "I believe in diplomacy and shared values," she said.

The following weeks will reveal whether the mining site in Kuannersuit will be put on hold for good.

The Danish government declined to comment on the election outcome.

Author bio

Line Lund Hebbelstrup is a freelance journalist focussing on the EU and green transition

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