Greenland is not for sale, by Philippe Descamps (Le Monde diplomatique

Greenland opens up: major airport expansion aims to connect Nuuk to the rest of the world

Philippe Descamps

Greenland’s indigenous Inuit people have not forgotten that they subsisted for centuries in extreme conditions, even though they now lead modern lives. Nuuk, its capital, has a population of only 19,000 yet it has a rich cultural life, with theatre, cinema, clubs, public art, museums, and music and film festivals. When I visited, the rock group Zikaza were playing at the FoyerKoncert cultural centre; the audience, from teens to people in their 50s, sang along. (Lead vocalist Siiva Fleischer founded the group in Aarhus, Denmark’s second city, but returned to Greenland 15 years ago.)

A common belief that if Greenland’s ice sheet melted, its abundant mineral wealth would be easy to exploit was behind Donald Trump’s offer to buy the island from Denmark in 2019. Denmark rejected the bid, as it had previous US bids in 1867, 1910 and 1946. Greenland is not for sale, and its inhabitants fully intend to decide their own future. The latest survey indicates that more than two thirds of them want independence from Denmark, a proportion that is growing.

The two parties that won the most seats in the April 2021 general election — Inuit Ataqatigiit (democratic socialist/environmentalist) and Siumut (social democratic) — both want independence. Sara Olsvig, former leader of Inuit Ataqatigiit and now chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (1), explained: ‘Opinions vary as to what form of independence from Denmark — or union with it — is best, but there’s widespread pressure for Greenland to be allowed to decide its own future. Above all, the indigenous peoples want to be recognised as equal to everyone else. If you look at the history of Kalaallit Nunaat [the Inuit name for Greenland] and of the Inuit across the Arctic, it’s clear they needed to be highly autonomous to survive in this environment. That’s a kind of self-determination too.’

Since 1953, when Greenland ceased to be a colony and became a province of Denmark, its people have gradually emancipated themselves through referendums, voting for home rule in 1979; to leave the European Economic Community in 1982; and for expanded home rule, control of their own natural resources and the right to declare independence in 2008 (a law confirming this right came into force in 2009). Denmark’s high commissioner for Greenland, Julie Præst Wilche, says the Danish government recognises the possibility that Greenland will one day become independent, but thinks this is unlikely to happen in the near future and is ‘not actively preparing for it in any way’.

‘Who is truly independent?’

I asked Siumut party secretary Ole Aggo Markussen if he had a target date for independence. He replied, ‘The real question is, who in the world today is truly independent? The concept of the nation state as it was defined when Greenland stopped being a colony would be nonsense today. Even France is dependent on the EU. Our union with Denmark is like a forced marriage: the wife has wanted a divorce for 45 years; the husband says she’s free to leave, but he’ll keep all the money. A large part of our value chain is outside Greenland: the fish we catch here are processed in Denmark, for example.’

Under an agreement renewed in 2009, the Danish government gives Greenland an annual block grant which totalled 3.9bn kroner (around $560m) in 2022, equivalent to roughly 19% of Greenland’s GDP (2). According to Wilche, there are no plans to change this. Greenland also receives EU aid for fisheries and education. ‘It’s good for us in the short term, but it’s not conducive to independence,’ said Jess G Berthelsen, chairman of SIK, Greenland’s largest trade union body. ‘If we want independence, we have to earn money on our own, and we’re a long way from doing that.’

The UN General Assembly says ‘access to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a universal human right.’ The Inuit have been saying that for decades

Sara Olsvig

The first major problem is the discrepancy between Greenland’s size and its population. The island has an area of 2.1 million square kilometres, half the size of the EU and 50 times that of Denmark; but for 30 years its population has averaged just 56,000, less than 1% of the size of Denmark’s. (Some 90% are indigenous or of mixed origin.) Around 81% of the country is covered by an ice sheet up to 3km thick in places.

The communities dotted along the coast, often far apart, are like an archipelago (see map), with no railways or roads to link them. Greenland’s northernmost town, Qaanaaq (population 700) is 600km from its nearest neighbour and 1,600km from Nuuk; Tasiilaq (population 2,200), in southeast Greenland, is also 600km from its nearest neighbour. To ensure basic services and a regular supply of provisions, every community needs its own power station, water supply, port and airport. In the past, the Danish authorities sometimes forced entire populations to relocate.

Nuuk, surrounded by water and mountains that are snow-covered for most of the year, is a small community, but unlike most other towns and villages in Greenland it has great vitality. Brightly painted apartment blocks (like Scandinavian houses) are springing up everywhere, and the apartments often sell out even before construction is completed.

Greenland's sea of ice

Greenland’s sea of ice

Airport expansion works

For the last year, life in Nuuk has been disrupted by airport expansion works. Until now the runway has only been long enough for short take-off and landing (STOL) aircraft, mainly Dash 8-200 turboprop planes that carry just 37 passengers. Millions of cubic metres of rock are being crushed near the foot of the ski lifts that overlook the town and used to double the length of the runway to accommodate jets.

Greenland currently has only two long runways, built by the US army during the second world war, at Kangerlussuaq and Narsarsuaq, far from all populated areas. Apart from those who come by Dash 8-200 from Iceland, all international passengers today fly in from Copenhagen and arrive at one of these two airports, before travelling on to their final destination by helicopter or small plane. There are no direct commercial flights to North America: a young Inuit woman from Canada told me her 800-km journey from Iqaluit to Nuuk, had involved six different flights.

Sea and air transport are at the mercy of Greenland’s harsh climate. Though global warming has reduced the extent of the Arctic pack ice, it remains an obstacle to shipping for part of the year. Moreover, the Atlantic coast is affected by the cold East Greenland Current, carrying pack ice and icebergs that can block any fjord in hours. Aircraft are often grounded by sudden storms, causing cancellations and delays.

In 2015 Greenland’s parliament approved three new 2,200-metre runways — at Nuuk, Ilulissat (Greenland’s principal tourist destination, on Unesco-listed Disko Bay, famed for its icebergs) and Qaqortoq in the south (replacing the long runway at Narsarsuaq, which will close in 2025). Greenland’s government initially approached China for help with funding as part of its Polar Silk Road project.

Playing on US fear of China

‘In 2016 the Chinese had offered to buy the old US naval base at Grønnedal (or Kangilinnguit), which was established during the [second world] war to protect the Ivittuut cryolite mine nearby and run by the Danes from 1951 until it closed in 2012,’ said Rasmus Leander Nielsen of the University of Greenland (Ilisimatusarfik). ‘The US told Denmark it couldn’t allow the Chinese to buy the base. A similar thing happened with the airport. Washington vetoed it and Copenhagen had to find alternative funding. When the US opened a consulate in Nuuk, it wasn’t just to help Greenland, but also to keep China out.’

Under an agreement signed in September 2018, Denmark is to make equity contributions covering a third of the $537m cost in return for a stake of just over 33.3% in the company set up to build and operate the three airports, and provide a $64m convertible loan as well as loan guarantees worth another $64m.

Greenland has cleverly played on the US’s fear of China. ‘Denmark was a founding member of NATO in 1949. Being a small country, it’s strongly Atlanticist by choice,’ said Olsvig. ‘Greenland is Atlanticist out of necessity, because it can’t do anything about its geographical or geopolitical position. But as a result it has leverage it can use in any negotiation with the US.’

When the Nazis occupied Denmark in 1940,the US government negotiated with the Danish ambassador to Washington for permission to site air bases and radar stations in Greenland. After the war, some bases were abandoned, while others became civilian airports. The Thule base, in the northwest, was expanded in 1953. Equidistant from New York and Moscow, it played a strategic role during the cold war and remains key to the US’s space surveillance network and anti-missile defences. Denmark’s Joint Arctic Command, headquartered in Nuuk with a staff of just over 30, has a few boats and helicopters, and some small local units such as the five men guarding the Station Nord military outpost and scientific station. Denmark has no heavy icebreakers to help assert its maritime sovereignty (3).

Our union with Denmark is like a forced marriage: the wife has wanted a divorce for 45 years; the husband says she’s free to leave, but he’ll keep all the money. A large part of our value chain is outside Greenland: the fish we catch here are processed in Denmark

Ole Aggo Markussen

Greenland’s currency, police, defence and foreign relations are all controlled by Denmark, but Nuuk wants a bigger role in foreign policy decision-making. Greenland is already represented on the Arctic Council; as a constituent nation of the Kingdom of Denmark, it chairs the Danish delegation in two working groups. Greenland’s foreign minister Vivian Motzfeldt supports the sanctions against Russia, but told me, ‘We must be able to talk in the future. Russia is not going to disappear. And we have many friends there.’

A survey by the University of Greenland indicates Greenlanders are generally pacifist: 68% support cooperation with existing allies, but 81% disagree with US policy on China. Most see China’s increasing international influence as a positive thing, and are keen to maintain good economic relations (4). They are also against joining the EU. Olsvig said, ‘We see the impact of sanctions on Russia, which is an important market for us. If the same thing happened in the Asian market, the consequences for Greenland would be severe. Staying close to our allies while ensuring we have access to markets around the world is a constant balancing act.’ He added that ‘paradoxically, the US isn’t a big market for our products, which mostly come from the sea.’

Olsvig emphasised the impact of climate disruption, which is far worse in the Arctic than elsewhere: ‘We need to adapt, because it’s coming. Let’s be clear: from the Inuit point of view, there’s nothing positive about climate change. On 28 July last year the UN General Assembly declared that “access to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a universal human right.” The Inuit have been saying that for decades.’

Deglaciation is attracting more and more attention and a growing number of international studies: if the ice sheet melts, global sea level could rise by more than seven metres. It will be a global threat over the next few centuries, but the local effects are already a concern. Global warming is a threat to hunting (as the extent of the pack ice diminishes) and fisheries (as ocean currents shift, affecting fish movements). It has helped to revive agriculture in southern Greenland to some extent, but warmer temperatures have been accompanied by droughts.

‘A planned economy offers stability’

From fisheries to airports, the state plays a key role, either through public services or private enterprises in which the state has a controlling interest. ‘This is probably one of the world’s most socialist countries,’ said Christian Keldsen, director of the Greenland Business Association. That’s not all bad: ‘A planned economy like ours offers great stability. Most global economic crises, like the one in 2008, have passed us by. On the other hand, competition isn’t really fair when you’re up against state-owned enterprises in every sector. And because Denmark doesn’t ask for anything in return for the aid it gives us, we’re not used to thinking about the return on investment that foreign companies demand.’

Being under Denmark’s guardianship means that Greenland gets not only loan guarantees but also the Nordic economic and social model. ‘You won’t find anyone here who’s against independence, as long as it doesn’t affect what we have,’ Keldsen said. ‘We want to protect our society and the welfare state, and stay open to the world. We like our healthcare and education systems, and having free access to many services. But we don’t see any sign that the new government is going tomake us more independent financially.’

Under the 2009 agreement, revenues from mineral resource activities will gradually replace the Danish block grant. From the final season of the Danish political drama Borgen to estimates by the US Geological Survey, there has been much fantasising over Greenland’s mineral and hydrocarbon resources, and its hydroelectric potential. The harsh conditions and huge initial investment required are generally played down. Greenland’s only two working mines — Aappaluttoq (rubies and sapphires) and White Mountain (anorthosite, which contains material used in glass fibre and coatings) — are barely profitable. US aluminium giant Alcoa spent 20 years conducting feasibility studies for a smelting works near Maniitsoq, but ultimately chose to build it in Iceland instead. The Nanortalik ‘gold belt’ once attracted great interest, but the Nalunaq mine only operated from 2004 to 2013 (though the rising price of gold could allow it to reopen in the next two years). A new titanium mine could also open in Greenland’s north.

Fishing is not enough

‘It’s all happening, but people need to understand that it takes time,’said Jørgen Hammeken-Holm, deputy minister for natural resources. ‘It’s the same anywhere in the world: only one in every hundred or two hundred mining projects will be successful. Greenland doesn’t have a hundred, but it’s important to find some other source of revenue besides fishing, which is under threat. The government doesn’t have the means to invest in this high-risk sector. That’s why we’re making every effort to encourage foreign companies to come here.’

Another obstacle to exploiting Greenland’s natural resources is public opinion. Greenlanders remember in particular the forced relocation in 1972 of the 1,200 inhabitants of Qullissat after the local coal mine closed in 1968. The accident in which a US B-52 Stratofortress carrying four nuclear bombs crashed near the Thule air base in 1968 and the exposure to radiation of those who took part in the cleanup operation also had a big impact. The Inuit Ataqatigiit party has blocked the mining of any ore containing more than 0.1% uranium. Under its 2021 coalition agreement with Siumut, only a referendum can reverse this decision, which halted Australian-Chinese plans to mine what is thought be one of the world’s largest deposits of rare earth metals, at Kuannersuit near the southern town of Narsaq. The new government has also banned all new exploration for hydrocarbons in order to protect the environment, fisheries and tourism.

These decisions baffle the SIK union’s Berthelsen: ‘People want independence, but they don’t want income from any other source than fishing. They think pennies are going to rain from heaven. They want cars and phones and computers, but they don’t want anyone to dig up the minerals needed to make them.’ However, Canadian companies Neo Performance Materials and Hudson Resources say they will soon begin mining rare earth metals at Sarfartoq and that there is no risk it will unearth any uranium. Geologist Laurent Geoffroy says, ‘Greenland’s underground wealth is a fact and exploiting it would make total economic independence a possibility,’ but he warns that ‘most Greenlanders don’t have the right skills for the kind of jobs that would be created by the exploitation of mineral or hydrocarbon resources, so if the plan is to bring in thousands of foreign miners, the country needs to be prepared.’

As things stand, it’s likely that Greenland will only attain political sovereignty if it allows its economy to depend on foreign investors and accepts ecologically unequal exchange. Its leaders, as champions of the indigenous cause, have been mandated to find a solution that is compatible with the Greenlandic tradition of closeness to nature, even if that means remaining under Danish rule a little longer. Greenland is not for sale, by Philippe Descamps (Le Monde diplomatique

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