On Greenland’s Political Future: State or Wait?

Greenland flag in Nuuk (Photo by Mingming Shi)

This month, it was reported that Inuit populations in northern Canada and Greenland were seeking to assume greater control over the waters which separate Nunavut’s Baffin and Ellesmere Islands on two sides and Greenland on the other. This was in response to a report released in November this year by the Pikialasorsuaq Commission of the Inuit Circumpolar Council which called for a protected area in the environmentally delicate waterway, as well as the return of free movement between the islands for Inuit populations in the region.

The document, entitled ‘People of the Ice Bridge: The Future of Pikilalasorsuaq’, advocated greater control of the region known locally in the Western Greenlandic language as Pikialasorsuaq (‘Great Upwelling’), by local peoples, given the distinct and fragile ecosystem of the polynya, meaning an area of open water enclosed by sea ice. Such an initiative would require the consent of the governments of Greenland and Canada, but also Denmark since Greenland is part of the Danish Kingdom. Regardless of the outcome of these negotiations, the initiative offers another potential challenge to the complex political relationship between Denmark and Greenland, at a time when the Arctic begins to open up to greater economic activity, and Greenland itself draws global attention for its fossil fuel and resource potential.

In June 2009, Greenland achieved self-rule from Denmark, twenty years after ‘home rule’, the right of the island to establish its own elected assembly, was granted as part of the process of allowing for increased local governance for the island. As per the 2009 Self-Government Act [pdf], Denmark retained the right to determine policy in the areas of Greenland’s defence and foreign policy, in conjunction with the Government of Greenland (Naalakkersuisut), while most other portfolios were transferred to the Greenlandic parliament in Nuuk. Chapter VIII of the Act outlines the rights and responsibilities of Greenland should the results of a referendum indicate a preference by the Greenlandic people for outright independence. For decades, however, such an outcome was widely viewed as unlikely due to the country’s remote location and small population, as well as what was seen at the time as the island’s limited economic potential.

Although Greenland’s territory is considerable, measuring 2,166,000km2, (slightly larger than Saudi Arabia), its small population would likely result in an independent Greenland being, at least nominally, classified as a ‘microstate’ or ‘ministate’ using some conventional measurements, (i.e. possessing a population of less than five hundred thousand), thus adding to the international relations debate over ‘how small is too small’ for a state to function as an independent political entity, while still maintaining a threshold degree of sovereignty and security.

Display at the Greenland National Museum / Nunatta katersugaasivia allagaateqarfialu (Photo by M. Lanteigne)

Greenland’s small population (about 57,000) has often been perceived as one major barrier to independence, as an independent Greenland would inevitably fall into the category of a ‘small power’, defined as a state which would require outside assistance to maintain its security, that would have a very limited margin for error in its external policymaking, and which would accept the fact that its low level of power was basically unalterable. However, there are states more sparsely populated than Greenland, with the smallest being Vatican City (with a population of approximately of 850 persons). Other examples include small island states like Nauru (9500) and Tuvalu (10,000) and European ministates such as Monaco (30,500) and San Marino (32,700).

Economically, Greenland is also bound to Denmark, as in addition to the Greenlandic seafood industry, the other major contributor to the island’s economy is an annual grant from Copenhagen, valued at approximately 3.2 billion Danish kroner (US$510 billion). Therefore, before taking any steps towards independence, Greenland would have to consider the impact of a reduction or complete loss of that substantial revenue.

Despite these concerns, however, the debate about Greenland sovereignty, and perhaps even independence, has persisted. The primary reason for this is the evolving geographic and climatic conditions on the island resulting from Arctic climate change and ice erosion. Greenland has been greatly affected by the changed environmental conditions in the region, including the steady melting of its vast central ice sheet (Sermersuaq) revealing lands, formerly inaccessible, which may become suitable for mining projects. The abundance and diversity of base and precious metals in Greenland includes copper, gold, platinum, titanium and zinc, as well as uranium and rare earth elements or REEs. The mineral wealth on the island has caught the attention of many states which rely heavily on such raw materials for economic growth and development.

Mining projects in Greenland are functioning to varying degrees. Leading the way has been a ruby mine which officially began operations in May 2017 at Aappaluttoq, about 155 kilometres south of Nuuk. The facilities, owned by the Norwegian firm LNS Greenland A/S, assumed the administration of the site after the operation’s previous owner, Canada’s True North Gems, was unable to accumulate enough startup funding to commence operations. In January 2015 a Hong Kong firm, General Nice (Junan Jituan 俊安集团) assumed the oversight of a potential iron mine at Isua from a British firm, although it remains unclear when actual extraction might begin.

Garnering even more attention has been an REE mining project announced for the Kvanefjeld region, operated by Australia’s Greenland Minerals and Energy in partnership with China’s Shenghe Resources Holding Co. (Shenghe ziyuan konggu gufen youxian gongsi 盛和资源控股股份有限公司) based in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province. Even before that project began to take shape, it courted political controversy in 2013 when the possibility of the Kvanefjeld site also producing uranium led to the Greenland government removing a ban on uranium extraction, touching off a legal and jurisdictional dispute with the Danish government which was only settled in May of last year. As well, plans have been made for potential zinc mining at Citronen in northern Greenland by Australian firm Ironbark, in conjunction with China Nonferrous Metal Mining Group (Zhongguo youse kuangye jituan youxian gongsi 中国有色矿业集团有限公司).

There is also the possibility that climate change may open the door to fossil fuel (oil and gas) development in waters off Greenland, which would further affect the traditional economy of the island and bolster the case for eventual independence from Denmark, with a timetable far shorter than what would have been feasible before these geographical changes began to emerge. In late October of this year it was announced by the Greenland government that areas of fossil fuel exploration off of the island’s west coast would be made available to investors. It has been estimated that approximately 17 billion barrels of oil equivalent may be found in that region, while areas of Greenland’s east coast may contain as much as 32 billion barrels.

nuuk snowbank
Nuuk, Greenland (Photo by Mingming Shi)

There remains, however, a great deal of debate about how long it would take for mining and energy to bring appreciable income to Greenland and whether the economic benefits would be sufficient to push the island towards full independence given other economic and socio-political factors. As well, ongoing low energy and commodity prices have dampened enthusiasm for some large-scale projects in the Arctic region, at least until prices recover to a certain level.

Thus, the question of Greenland’s future political status is directly linked both to its ability to collect and retain a threshold amount of economic security to allow for greater sovereignty, as well as to the greater social-economic and environmental impact of these projects on the island. Should commodity prices increase, there is also the question of how the island would withstand a potential resource boom and concerns about ‘Dutch disease’ causing more economic hardships and benefits. The debate over Greenland independence has been muted over the past few years, but is far from absent.

[The editor would like to thank Mingming Shi for her assistance with this post.]