Greenland's vast natural resources, ranging from oil and gas to uranium, rare earth and iron ore, have remained largely inaccessible under thick layers of ice, making them too difficult and expensive to extract. But with a receding ice sheet and new transport routes opening through the Northwest Passage these prized materials have now placed Greenland at the threshold of a potential commodities boom that could see the territory transformed. On 25 October 2013 the Greenlandic parliament narrowly voted to lift a 25 year ban on the mining of uranium which it inherited from Denmark, its former colonial power. This potentially paves the way for companies like the Australian mining consortium Greenland Minerals and Energy (GME) to start digging for deposits of rare earth, used in mobile phones, aircraft engines, telescopes and other high tech devices, in places like the Kvanefjeld mountains near the town of Narsaq on the west coast of the territory.
While there are many hurdles to overcome for mining to go ahead, one of the main obstacles could be resistance from Denmark, which still retains control over certain strategic aspect of Greenland's future, and a considerable part of the territory's population worried about the environment, the influx of foreigners and the threat to traditional ways of living. In places like Narsaq, opinion is starkly divided over the issue. The town used to be one of Greenland's wealthiest. But an EU ban on the import of seal products and a younger generation looking for a more modern way of life has caused the town's population to fall precipitously.
From being the safest town in Greenland, Narsaq has become a crime hotspot. 'Without jobs, there's no point living in Narsaq. When people are out of work they are nothing', says Josef Petersen, one of the supporters of mining at Kvanefjeld. Greenland's prime minister, Aleqa Hammond, agrees. 'We cannot live with unemployment and increases in the cost of living while our economy is at a standstill.' People like the prime minister are keen to put Greenland on a more stable financial footing in anticipation of eventual independence from Denmark, a move that would mean the withdrawal of a subsidy that currently accounts for over half of the national budget.
As in other aspirational countries, China has come to represent the difficult choice between potential rewards and worrying pitfalls that Greenland may expect from opening its economy to global business and trade. The Northwest passage would make exporting materials from Greenland to China relatively straight forward and a new law has opened the way for the employment of foreign workers in the construction of roads, ports and other infrastructure.
With China expressing a keen interest in the extraction of Greenland's mineral wealth, it is feared that large numbers of Chinese workers would arrive in Greenland, with a population of only 57,000, most of whom are of Inuit descent. While the mining companies have commissioned studies on the environmental impact of large scale extraction and have assured local residents that it is safe, environmentalists remain worried about the fallout from the mining of radioactive materials on pristine arctic ecosystems. Though mining may not commence for a number of years pending decisions by Denmark and other authorities, Greenland looks set to become an important player in the global commodities market.
To view a multimedia film about Espen's journey to Greenland, please click HERE