Greenland’s mineral rush 'could lead to independence'

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Courted by multinational companies and foreign heads of state over its rare minerals and potential oil resources, Greenland could win full independence from Denmark and join the European Union as a free state, according to one expert on the Arctic.

Greenland’s leader Kuupik Kleist is boxing above his weight when it comes to foreign policy.

Although the premier represents an autonomous island of just 57,000 people, within the last couple of months he has met with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and representatives from the Chinese government.

Greenland is a self-ruled territory in the Kingdom of Denmark. Although it was granted home rule in 1979, the Danish government is still in charge of foreign affairs, defence, police and justice, as well as financial policy.

Denmark also provides the territory with an annual subsidy of 3.4 billion crowns (€457 million).

Besides raising the interest of climate researchers, Greenland offers a treasure of natural resources, commodities and possibly oil. In a century where natural resources are becoming scarcer, the cold Arctic country is getting politically hotter.

“I think it opens many doors for the country,” said Nukaaka Fleischer Hansen, a young Greenlander who works at the Ministry for Industry and Mineral Resources.

“The outside world doesn’t know much about Greenland. I used to study in Norway, and many of them knew nothing about Greenland, which made me sad. It’s a beautiful country and it has many opportunities,” she said.

Greenland has mines containing diamonds, gold, copper, platinum, uranium, aluminum and titanium as well as rare earth elements, which are used in high-tech products. However, the level of exploration in the mines is at an early stage and more mines could be found.

Licence to drill

There are around 30 – mostly foreign – mining exploration companies working in Greenland at the moment. One of them is a homegrown company called NunaMinerals, which has been operating in the country since 1999. 

“There’s an increased interest in the mines in Greenland from foreign companies. It’s one of the last parts of the world that really hasn’t been explored. So a lot of money is spent on exploring at the moment,” Dan Bång, chief financial officer of NunaMinerals, told EurActiv.

“This is Greenland’s future,” he said.

NunaMinerals is currently involved in five big projects on the coast, including a diamond project together with the British-Australian mining and metals corporation Rio Tinto and a few smaller exploration projects. In total, it has 15-17 licences covering 10,000 square kilometres.

Bång said it’s tough exploring the Greenlandic mines. The different projects take up a lot of time as the season during which the companies can explore is fairly short. The season runs from May or June until September or October and depends on the weather. However, the country is politically stable, and that is an important factor, Bång stated.

“It’s not like what you see in Africa and South America where there are unrest or wars, or where the state suddenly acquires the mines without giving a compensation to the companies. You don’t risk that up here.”

At the moment mostly exploration companies from China, Canada and Australia are attracted by the Greenlandic mines. Their own mines are being emptied, and they want to find new projects.

"Though Greenland seems far away, the projects are on the coastline so they are easy to access. And the potential is quite huge," NunaMinerals' CFO said.

The Chinese are particularly interested in Greenland's iron and rare earth elements that can be used for green energy like wind turbines and hybrid cars, but also technology like computers, mobile phones and high-capacity batteries. China wants to be a leading country when it comes to green energy and technology, and though China dominates the world’s rare earth elements at the moment, they will become a net importer in the future.

EU membership on the road to independence?

Damien Degeorges is an associated researcher to the University of Greenland and the author of 'The Role of Greenland in the Arctic'. He said potential economic independence via the exports of natural resources could guarantee Greenland independence from Denmark, even though more would be required in order to secure a strong state.

On paper, it could happen tomorrow, but Greenland is not ready. Another 20-30 years is more likely, but it depends on having enough money in the long term, better education and a change of mentality among the Greenlanders.

"Given its strategic assets, a Greenlandic state would have to secure its development in the long term, avoiding the consequences of potential economic difficulties. Perhaps it should become part of a supranational cooperation like the EU if becoming independent. It could give Greenland an economic safety net," Degeorges told EurActiv in an interview.

The Arctic expert added that the generation born after 1985 is more pragmatic, and would probably have fewer problems rejoining the EU. Greenland left the European Community in 1985 over disputed fishing regulations. In the future, with the booming mining and metal sector, fishing quotas would only be a minor headache for the Greenlanders.

The Greenlanders would, however, have to feel that they are not just being told what to do by the EU.

"It’s also a question for the EU not to repeat the same mistakes or misunderstandings. I think the EU has corrected its mistakes so the relationship right now between Greenland and the EU is good," Degeorges said.

"The EU should just continue to be a good, constructive and pragmatic partner and not disturb the development in Greenland," he added.

Degeorges also highlighted that Iceland plays an important role for Greenland’s future. If Iceland joins the EU, then Greenland's road to the EU would become shorter. Iceland filed an application to join the bloc in 2009, and is currently in the middle of accession talks.

Back in Greenland, Hansen said that a growing number of locals are hoping that the discoveries in the mines will eventually lead to full independence from Denmark. This would mean no longer having Denmark "standing on our shoulders". 

“If we compare to Iceland [which got its independence from Denmark in 1944], it has gone well for them for many years. Then they had a crisis, but I guess you have to experience that in order to move on,” Hansen stated.

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