Climate change has already begun to take a toll on the amount of ice in Greenland and is making minerals more accessible. Some see the international interest in mineral extraction appealing because the foreign investment and expansion of the mining industry may provide Greenland with what it needs for independence while increasing local employment. However, there is concern that the development will interfere with traditional Inuit hunting and fishing practices, and the increase in modernisation and influence from Western culture has already been cited as impacting the mental health of Inuit communities. The opening of a uranium mine was proposed several years ago near the village of Narsaq, though the environmental impact assessment has yet to be completed. The mine has been opposed by Earth Charter Narsaq, Narsami Uranisiornermut Naaggaartut (Association Against Uranium in Narsaq), but many residents of Narsaq welcome the increase in jobs, tourism and chance for independence. Though the planned mine will be located near Narsaq, the way in which the company and local government address this issue will impact the future of similar dilemmas over whether Greenland should allow foreign exploitation of its resources at the possible expense of its Inuit culture (Bjørst 2016). How can the community of Narsaq, and Greenland as a whole, reconcile the environmental, economic and political opportunities associated with mining and the potential damages to indigenous traditions and way of life?
Greenland’s inhabitants, mainly Inuit, have a distinct culture from that of the Danes and that is a conglomeration of Inuit and Scandinavian traditions, and have long been seeking independence in order to protect their unique way of life. In 1979, Greenland secured home rule and, in 2008, was granted self-rule, giving the government control over most aspects of internal affairs aside from foreign policy, monetary policy and defense. Greenland’s economy is supported by a large block grant from Denmark that makes up roughly two-thirds of the Greenlandic government’s budget, and while 64% of the population is in favor of independence, 78% is against it if it were accompanied by a lower living standard (Skydsbjerg 2016).
A small village of just over 1,500 people in Southern Greenland may hold the blueprints to Greenland’s independence in the form of a rare earth and uranium mine. Narsaq, Greenland’s ninth largest village, is reliant upon tourism for revenue, with fishing and sheep farming making up its main remaining economic sectors. The mine, located just next to Narsaq, is owned by the Australian exploration and development company Greenland Minerals and Energy Limited and is poised to become the world’s second largest rare-earth mine (Oneal 2017) and fifth largest uranium mine (Jamasmie 2017). According to the most recent feasibility study, the Kvanefjeld multi-element (Rare Earth Elements, Uranium, Zinc) mine project in Narsaq is projected to bring in $1.59 billion USD (“Greenland” 2018). Rare earth elements cannot be extracted separately from the uranium present in the deposits, making the threat of radioactive byproducts unavoidable if the mine were to open. The mine is controversial due to the negative environmental and social impacts associated with mining in general and with uranium mining in particular, but with Narsaq’s local economy suffering, as is the greater Greenlandic economy, many people are in favor of its operation (Journeyman 2016).
Greenland has the chance to diversify its economy if it allows for the mining of iron ore, uranium, gold, zinc, copper and many other rare earth elements. Currently, the size of the block grant Greenland receives from Denmark has been frozen since 2009, though Greenland’s expenses have been growing. Many young people leave Greenland to study and work in Denmark and other Scandinavian countries, resulting in an ageing population without a young workforce to support it. On the one hand, by allowing foreign investment in mineral extraction to take place, Greenland’s government could decrease its monetary dependency on Denmark, while also creating job opportunities for Greenlanders. Some reports have stated that Greenland’s REE deposits have the potential to fulfill one fourth of the global demand for minerals for at least 50 years (Boersma 2014). On the other hand, there is concern that the development will interfere with traditional Inuit hunting and fishing practices, and the increase in modernisation and influence from Western culture has already been cited as impacting the mental health of Inuit communities (Leineweber 2000).
The Narsaq economy has historically been dependent on fishing, sealing/whaling and sheep farming, but due to a decrease in global prices for cod and shrimp, the local processing factory was shut down in 2010, eliminating around 100 jobs (Oneal 2017). In a community already facing high rates of suicide and economic difficulty, an increase in unemployment could have disastrous effects (Fast 1996). Many people in Narsaq are hopeful that the mine will provide jobs and will bring an influx of money and tourists into their community (Leineweber 2000). However, The Association Against Uranium in Narsaq (Earth Charter Narsaq, Narsami Uranisiornermut Naaggaartut) is fearful of the potential for radon dust and radioactive tailings to contaminate their waters, fields and animals. Other locals have also protested the mine over concerns about further disruption to the ecosystem from the increase in air and land travel of infrastructure development and foreign mine workers.
Denmark is party to several international treaties and conventions such as the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, which prevent the development and proliferation of nuclear weapons. Because Greenland is still partially under the rule of the Kingdom of Denmark, Denmark is responsible for ensuring the uranium mined does not interfere with its ability to fulfill its commitments to the international community. Denmark has not been supportive of the Kvanefjeld Project because of this, and has historically been anti-uranium mining due to ecological reasons (Boersma 2014).
When Greenland gained home rule in 1979, it also earned complete control over the usage and exploitation of its rare earth elements. This allows the government to retain 100% of the revenue generated from mining activities. However, if in one year, the revenue generated exceeds 75 million Danish kroner, the yearly block grant received from Denmark will be reduced by the amount of excess revenue (Boersma 2014). Previously, Denmark had passed the Zero Tolerance Mandate, which banned the extraction of radioactive minerals such as thorium and uranium. The first government under Greenland’s self-rule was controlled by the Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA) party, which adhered to the Danish practice of preventing uranium mining. The IA also were proponents of the Large Scale Projects Act, which established regulations for companies hoping to implement projects costing more than 5 billion Danish kroner. This includes completing environmental and social impact assessments, in addition to meeting with local companies and organisations prior to receiving a license. Under this legislation, licensed companies are allowed to employ foreign workers in order to aid in the building of infrastructure needed, but those foreign workers are not able to continue to work on the project after the construction is complete (Boersma 2014).
Currently, there is no immigration bureau under the Greenlandic government so all immigration and temporary work visas must be handled by the Danish authorities. Greenland’s most prominent labor union has objected to The Large Scale Projects Act, as it enables foreign corporations to bring in between 500-700 foreign workers under each project and thus does not secure local employment. The Zero Tolerance Mandate was overturned after a close vote in 2013 by the government under Premier Hammond of the Siumut party despite continued concerns about environmental and social risks (Boersma 2014).
The company’s current plan for mitigating the potential effects of the radioactive waste produced includes a two-mile long pipeline that would funnel the tailings into a lake located above the fjord. There is yet to be a plan for how to control the radioactive dust that may contaminate nearby sheep pastures and water sources (Oneal 2017). Any policies chosen by the Greenlandic government for pursuit must begin with a community consultation to ensure that the actions being taken meet the needs of Narsaq’s people and allow them to have agency over what occurs in their home. GME estimates a creation of 383 jobs for unskilled and skilled laborers, which may improve mental health in the community as high rates of suicide are tied to growing unemployment (Gunter 2015). While the prospects for local employment are visible, GME expects to have one third of hires from outside of Greenland and the lifetime of the mine is only 30-40 years, rendering any employment temporary. The environmental and social impact assessments are reportedly underway, though they are being done by GME. In order to involve more Greenlanders in the process, GME should hire locals to complete the assessments themselves, or at the very least to partner with GME scientists. This would increase the number of local jobs created for Greenlanders and allows for the incorporation of Indigenous knowledge into the research and reporting process. The Inuit will have a better idea of what would be considered significant impacts to their environment and community so their inclusion will allow for a more accurate assessment.
Narsaq, like many communities in Greenland, is experiencing high rates of suicide and deteriorating mental health, often linked to modernisation and expanding Western presence. Inuit can be faced with the decision of whether to leave their culture behind in order to pursue education and work in a Western country or to stay in their home country living more traditionally, but dealing with economic hardships and unemployment. The creation of an Inuit cultural community center in Narsaq and staffed with GME funds and by locals could help lessen the social impact on the village by the opening of the mine. A similar project has been done in the Canadian Inuit town of Nain (Fast 1996). The construction and operation of a community center would employ locals, while providing a space for Narsaq community events and generating greater sense of Inuit community.
GME has awareness about the environmental and social effects on Narsaq by their project and has already started to work toward mitigating the ecological ones (GME 2015). Though the mine may appear as an exchange from Greenland’s dependence on one foreign nation (Denmark) to that of another (Australia), there is the potential for greater political freedom for Greenland through an increase in economic activity. The mine also has the potential to generate a greater awareness about the issues of climate change and the ecological risks of mining, which will increasingly affect northern communities like Narsaq (Watt-Cloutier 2015). The outcome of the Narsaq-Kvanefjeld Project situation will influence how other groups, particularly in Greenland, deal with similar issues. However, that independence should not have to come at the expense of the environment, culture and people. If followed, these recommended policy options would give Narsaq the tools it needs to protect its society, while reaping the benefits from the mine. While uranium mining in the Narsaq community is an issue on its own, it is also representative of the larger dilemma facing Greenland: to allow foreign exploitation of its resources possibly at the detriment to the traditional lifestyle of the Native Greenlanders.