Mining — and independence — at the heart of Greenland's election

Greenlanders will head to the polls Tuesday in an election partly defined by bitter disputes over the future of resource development in the Arctic nation.

Dispute over controversial rare earths mine collapsed former government

Candidates from the Greenlandic party Siumut pass out flyers in Nuuk in Greenland, Wednesday. The autonomous territory within the Kingdom of Denmark, Greenland, will hold election to its Parliament consisting of 31 members, on April 6. (Emil Helms/Ritzau Scanpix/AP)

Greenlanders will head to the polls Tuesday in an election partly defined by bitter disputes over the future of resource development in the Arctic nation.

The April 6 election was called after a controversial mining project in southern Greenland sparked an internal spat within the ruling coalition.

The project, in an area known as Kannersuit near the community of Narsaq, would see an Australian-listed mining company, backed partly by Chinese investors, mine for rare earth metals and uranium in a pristine region used by fishermen, shepherds and tourist guides.

But the governing party's push for the mine has also been closely tied to the country's push for independence from Denmark, as it seeks to gradually reduce its dependence on a roughly $700 million annual transfer from the former colonial power.

"This is a project that probably really would make a difference, in terms of providing jobs and a healthy dose of income to the national purse," said Ulrik Pram Gad, a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies.

"But it's also a very controversial project, in the sense that … it's really [about], should we sacrifice this beautiful spot and the kind of life that people live there, for the sake of the greater good — in this case, inching towards national independence?"

Protests and death threats

Just five kilometres from Narsaq is a mountain home to one of the world's largest unexploited deposits of rare earth metals, an important strategic resource currently mined almost exclusively in China.

The proposed mine would see neodymium, used for wind turbines and combat aircraft, mined alongside uranium, the mining of which was banned on the island until 2013.

The project was backed by the ruling Siumut party, which has governed Greenland for all but one term since 1979. But as the government began public hearings on the project, support within the governing coalition eroded in the face of outrage from local residents.

An aerial view of the town of Narsaq in southern Greenland, located just five kilometres from the site of the Kannersuit rare earths mine. (Greenland Minerals Ltd/Reuters)

Hearings in Narsaq were greeted by grassroots environmental protests and even death threats aimed at cabinet ministers who supported the project. Hundreds of NGOs signed an open letter asking that the area be deemed an Arctic sanctuary instead.

Many fear the mine will negatively impact not only fishing, the core of Narsaq's economy, but tourism and the region's budding agriculture industry as well.

But others see the project, and others like it, as key steps toward Greenland's financial independence.

A boost to the treasury

Currently, Denmark pays for two-thirds of the Greenland government's budget, according to Maria Ackrén, a professor of political science at Ilisimatusarfik (University of Greenland). 

But royalties from the mine could cover as much as 15 per cent of public expenditures, Reuters reports — roughly $250 million per year.

"It is clear that the economy should be diversified," she said. "Those parties that are in favour see this as … a step toward independence."

Mute Bourup Egede, chairman of the party Inuit Ataqatigiit, poses ahead of parliamentary election, in Nuuk, Greenland April 5, 2021. (Ritzau Scanpix/Emil Helms/Reuters)

That puts Inuit Ataqatigiit, Siumut's left-wing opposition, on tricky footing. As outspoken critics of the Kannersuit project, they stand to see their vote increase in southern Greenland, where Pram Gad says Siumut normally performs strongly.

But they are also a party that strongly supports independence. Objecting to resource projects puts them further from that goal, and makes it harder to form coalitions in government, Ackrén said.

That may explain the party's so-far muted opposition to a neighbouring rare earths project, called Tanbreez, that some believe poses fewer risks to the environment.

"I think there are lots of compromises to be made," said Ackrén.

Unclear who will lead

Siumut, the original proponents of the project, could also stand to gain from opposition to the project. That's because the party's internal fight over the mine is still unresolved.

Erik Jensen ousted Kim Kielsen as party leader last year over his government's support for the mine. But in a rejection of convention, Kielsen remained on as premier.

That means, no matter who wins, it's not clear who will lead the government.

Greenland Premier Kim Kielsen speaks to the media in Reykjavik in 2019. It's not clear whether Kielsen or his replacement as Siumut party leader, Erik Jensen, would lead the government in a victory. (Egill Bjarnason/AP)

"It's unclear how this will play out in the election," said Martin Breum, a Danish journalist covering the election.

The candidate with the most votes typically wins the right to form a government. But if Kielsen were to outperform Jensen on April 6, it's hard to say who would be in charge.

"He might say, 'I would like to run the government,' and then it would be hard for … the new chairman of the party to refuse him that privilege," Breum said.

"It is very, very hard to predict."

All politics is local

All this means significant uncertainty for the mineral resources companies hungrily eyeing the island nation. 

Reuters has quoted the acting minister of resources, Vittus Qujaukitsoq, saying that in deciding on the Kannersuit project, the "credibility of the whole country is at stake."

But voters are unlikely to be moved by the anxiety of international investors.

"Development, when seen bottom up, is primarily about services," said Pram Gad. "There are these places [in Greenland] where very basic services don't really exist."

Pram Gad and other experts say, for most of Greenland, commitments to housing, social services and spreading the wealth generated by fisheries are more likely to sway votes than a party's position on the Kannersuit mine.

All to say, while the fate of Kannersuit may be attracting election-watchers from around the world, as always in politics, all issues are local.

With files from Reuters