Greenland’s dilemma

As Greenland eyes tourism and mining to secure its economic future, it is also mindful of controlling costs

LAURA PADDISON IS A CLIMATE AND ENVIRONMENT JOURNALIST Travel support for this piece was provided by the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York





Ujarneq Egede’s farm sits among a cluster of compact houses and squat barns on the snowy slopes of Equaluit Ilua in southern Greenland. The journey from Narsaq, the nearest town, involves a 30-minute boat trip across the fjord, mooring on a sheet of ice and a snowmobile ride up to the farm. This is the biggest island in the world, yet Greenland’s nearly 90% Inuit population, concentrated around the jagged coastline, is tiny – less than 57,000. The country’s remoteness is extreme: there are no roads or railways between towns and settlements. Transport is only by boat, helicopter and propeller planes – ice, winds and storms permitting. Narsaq is a small town of about 1,300 people, where jobs revolve around fishing, farming, a slaughterhouse and summer tourism. Its population levels have fallen 25% since 1991. On his farm Egede grows potatoes and raises 750 sheep – huddled in barns during the winter and ranging across the grassy mountains throughout summer. To be a farmer in Greenland is to have a front row seat to the climate crisis. Egede tracks the changes – “summer is sometimes really dry, other times there is too much rain. This winter was really late.” Where once it was possible to drive on the frozen fjord during winter, now that never happens, he said. It’s not just climate that worries him, however. Egede’s farm is in the shadow of Kvanefjeld, a proposed open pit uranium and rare earth elements mine. Fearing what it might do to the surrounding environment and his farm, he was immensely relieved when plans for the mine were recently halted after the new government, elected in April 2021, banned uranium mining. But the threat still simmers. This southern slice of Greenland has found itself at the sharp end of a quandary the country is reckoning with: how to develop the economy without doing so at the expense of its environment and its people, those like Egede, who rely on the pristine Arctic landscape for their livelihoods. In its own way, it’s a microcosm of the dilemma facing huge parts of the world. Greenland is a totem for the climate crisis. But as the ice melts, ironically opportunities arise: not only are raw materials easier to access but the country is becoming more accessible and tourist seasons are extending. The relatively young government came to power in April 2021 promising pro-environmental policies: it has promised to join the Paris climate agreement and has banned new licences for oil and gas drilling. But Greenland’s abundant minerals have attracted the attention of countries that currently depend on China and Russia for the raw materials needed to build the batteries and wind turbines of the low-carbon economy. Mining might mean Greenland could move away from financial dependence on Denmark, which gives the country a grant of 3.9bn krone ($550m) every year, and towards eventual independence. In Narsaq, Australian-based Greenland Minerals pitched the Kvanefjeld mine as a source of local opportunity. The pitch failed to impress many, including farmers like Egede, and Naasu Lund, who lives with her husband and two children on a hydro-powered sheep farm in Inneruulalik, near Narsaq. Lund was part of the anti-mine group Urani? Naamik (Uranium? No). Farmers thought they would be forced to move from farms that had been in their families for generations, said Lund. The biggest concern was the tailings pond holding the mining waste, she said, which would remain there forever. People feared it could spill in Greenland’s fierce weather, reaching the fjord in minutes. Urani? Naamik protested – and it worked. “This is the first time I can sit in my home and think about a future that is not involved with mining,” Lund said. Whether the threat is over is uncertain, however. Greenland Minerals has launched arbitration proceedings to “clarify the company’s position and to protect our shareholders’ considerable investment in Kvanefjeld”, according to a spokesperson, who added that a detailed environmental impact assessment had addressed all concerns about the mine. While Greenland’s government may be saying no to uranium, it’s open to other mining, and the warming climate may make projects more feasible. “Mineral deposits are exposed that had previously been under ice,” said Josephine Nymand of the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources. In March, Kobold Minerals, which has investment from Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates, and UK-based Bluejay Mining announced they would begin exploring for nickel, copper, cobalt and platinum group metals. Bo Stensgaard, the CEO of Bluejay Mining, said the project would operate to the “highest standards” environmentally and benefit Greenlanders through jobs and training. But there is no timeframe for when mining might start. Herein lies the problem, said Lill Rastad Bjørst, associate professor at Aalborg University – there’s a lot of talk but “close to nothing is happening”. The country currently has only two mines, one producing rubies and another anorthosite. Despite claims about how Greenlanders benefit from mining, “at the moment, there might be people who benefit from this development, but it’s not the people living in Greenland”, Bjørst said. Could tourism be the answer? “We advocate for tourism,” said Idrissia Thestrup, of Visit Greenland, “because we believe by preserving nature, we can actually avoid taking the resources in the land and potentially destroying landscapes.” Tourism was one of the country’s fastest growing industries until Covid lockdowns brought it to a halt. But 2022 will be a boom year, said Henrik Ebbe Nielsen, a tourism teacher at Campus Kujalleq, in Qaqortoq, south Greenland’s largest town. Qaqortoq expects an estimated 41 cruise ships this summer, spilling up to 47,000 tourists on to its streets. Visitor numbers may be boosted further by an airport expansion project. But bigger airports mean more aeroplanes, more emissions and more tourists. In some areas, “the local landscape is very much affected by too many tourists already”, said Bjørst. Thestrup said framing Greenland’s airport growth as a climate problem ignores its tiny contribution to the climate crisis and its extreme remoteness. But she acknowledged the need to tread carefully. “We want tourism to be a driver for economic growth but we want to do it at a pace that respects the nature and culture of our destination.” Greenland’s prime minister, Múte B Egede, recently set out his vision for a “resilient economy”, that would ultimately phase out fossil fuels. He predicts a future for newer industries, including using hydropower resources with captured CO emis 2 sions to create green fuels. “As the ‘face’ of climate change,” he wrote in an editorial, “Greenland wants to lead by example.” For now, the country is trying to plot a path towards increased economic freedom, while staking its claim for climate leadership. “You cannot sit down and cry, it doesn’t help, you have to just adapt,” Lund said. “We can do it right,” she added. “Greenland is a very sustainable country but it’s also the Arctic – nature doesn’t fix itself very fast after being destroyed, you have to be careful, it’s very fragile.”