Mining in Greenland - a country divided

Sunset at Narsaq Harbour

Greenland's economy relies on fishing and hunting, but the government has ambitious plans to develop the country's resource industries. In places like Narsaq, there's a fear that mining could destroy the environment and traditional ways of life.

Jens Erik Kirkegaard looks out across the smooth black water of Kangerluarsuk fjord to the snow dusted mountain rising steeply from the far shore. It's a clear, cold day at the beginning of winter, and Greenland's mining minister has his hands stuffed deep in a pair of seal-fur mittens to keep them warm.

"When you grow up in Greenland, you don't really think about the different mountains having different minerals," he reflects.

Standing by his side is a man with a white beard, wearing a battered red felt hat. Greg Barnes is chief geologist for Australian mining company Tanbreez Mining, and he's brought the minister here to pitch his plan to turn the mountain they're looking at into a mine.

Coloured houses cluster at the foot of Qaaqarsuaq, or 'Big Mountain' Coloured houses cluster at the foot of Qaaqarsuaq, or 'Big Mountain'

"It is the world's biggest rare earth deposit, it's probably got 50% of the world's rare earth in it," he claims. "This is one of the world's top 10 mines eventually we think."

Rare earth elements are used in everything from mobile phones to solar panels to wind turbines. China dominates world supply, but if people like Greg Barnes are right, Greenland has the potential to be a major player.

It's not just rare-earth minerals - Greenland also has reserves of gold, iron-ore, rubies and uranium, as well as oil and gas. In this country of just 57,000 people, with a GDP of $2.4bn (£1.5bn), developing those resources could have a big economic impact.

Tunulliarfik Fjord On an overcast day, there's not a single speck of colour on the fjords

And it could bring full independence from former colonial master Denmark, which still provides a substantial annual subsidy for Greenland's budget.

Greenland - at a glance

Map of Greenland
  • An autonomous Danish dependent territory with limited self-government
  • Fishing is a key economic activity
  • Danish grants make up the bulk of Greenland's revenues
  • There are fears that the ice sheet is melting at an increasing rate as the world warms
  • Social problems include high levels of unemployment and alcoholism

"It gives you some thought that you've been walking on billions of dollars all your life and not knowing about it," Kierkegaard says. "It's a significant time in Greenland."

In the nearby town of Narsaq, money like that could make a huge difference.

Nestled at the foot of a mountain where two fjords meet, it's a picturesque town of brightly coloured houses like Lego bricks sprinkled amongst the snow.

Like much of Greenland, it has traditionally made its living from fishing and hunting, and also more recently farming for lamb. But at the town slaughterhouse, manager Henning Sonderup tells me that traditional way of life no longer pays the bills.

"Many people are unemployed," he says. "Lots of families from Narsaq have moved out to other cities, so we have to do something."

Several years ago the shrimp processing plant in Narsaq closed, and with it around 80 jobs. It's been partly offset by the expansion of a catering school and the construction of a new slaughterhouse, but Narsaq's population has fallen by around 10% over the past five years.

Sonderup feels that unemployment and a lack of opportunities leads to social problems - "people drinking beer, some going around just like zombies with nothing to do".

Students protesting outside Narsaq's council building 'We want a new school'

Susanne Lynge is another who thinks the town is in a downward spiral.

Start Quote

I will be sad to see this town be destroyed”

End Quote Ivalo Lund Head nurse at Narsaq's Hospital

She's leading a loud protest in the snow outside the town council offices, shouting slogans into a megaphone while dozens of school children cheer in response. They wave colourful signs calling for the council to speed up construction of a new school.

"Our local government needs money," she says. "I wish they would open the mining."

Henning Sonderup reels off a list of the improvements that mining could bring: "New school, bigger hospital, better airport, new harbour, new roads, everything," he says. "Greenland will be on the map again."

The Tanbreez mine isn't the only one proposed near Narsaq. Another Australian company, Greenland Minerals and Energy (GME), is developing a rare-earth mine at Kvanefjeld, a mountain plateau about 6km (3.7 miles) from the town.

Unlike the Tanbreez mine, Kvanefjeld will produce uranium, fluoride and thorium as well as rare-earth minerals.

Avaaraq Olsen is a teacher and member of the local council, the badge on her hat says Urani Naamik - No to Uranium 'If mining is starting here in Narsaq, we will be moving away,' Avaaraq Olsen

The mine's prospects received a major boost in October when Greenland's parliament voted by 15 votes to 14 to overturn a long-standing ban on uranium mining. There are more legal hurdles to be overcome before uranium mining is a reality in Greenland, but the vote triggered huge debate in Greenland and much concern in Narsaq.

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James Fletcher's Assignment is broadcast on the BBC World Service on 2 January 2014 from 00:32 GMT

Avaaraq Olsen is a teacher and member of the local council for the opposition Inuit Ataqatigiit party. Sitting in her kitchen, she remembers the day the ban was overturned.

"I was very sad, I was crying," she says. "I'm ashamed of being a Greenlander. If this mine is starting here in Narsaq, we will be moving away, not just from Narsaq, but from Greenland."

At Olsen's house, there are guns by the door where you or I might keep umbrellas, ready to be slung over the shoulder whenever the weather is right for hunting birds or seals.

"My biggest concern is it will cause so much pollution that we won't be able to live in our town - and all the animals and biodiversity will be destroyed, " she says.

These environmental concerns are shared by other hunters and fishermen, and many of the 50 or so sheep farms in the surrounding area.

French-born Agathe Devisme runs Ipiutaq Farm with her Greenlandic partner Kallista Poulsen. As well as farming 300 sheep, they also rent out a cottage on the farm to tourists during the summer.

Agathe Devisme and her daughter Ina Devisme and her daughter Ina

"People coming to Greenland are looking for something pure," she says. "It's the last corner of the world not touched by pollution. If there is any kind of radioactivity in the area, they will not like it."

Start Quote

Some groups around the world would like to have the Arctic as a prehistoric natural museum, but there are people here who want a good standard of living ”

End Quote Jorgen Waever Johansen Mayor of South Greenland

The mines would also involve an influx of foreign workers into Narsaq, as there simply aren't enough skilled workers in Greenland to fill all the jobs the mines will create. Some see this as a benefit - the miners will live in the community, send their kids to the school, and spend their money at local businesses.

But other aren't so sure.

"I don't think it's healthy for such a small town to have so many people from outside," says Ivalo Lund, head nurse at Narsaq's Hospital. "It will be young men looking at the beautiful young girls here."

She's worried about sexually-transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies to fathers who leave town, and like Olsen says she'll move away if the Kvanefjeld mine goes ahead.

"I will be sad to see this town be destroyed," she tells me. "It will be a mining town and we will never ever be able to live as we do now."

Ib Laursen works for Greenland Minerals and Energy, and says Narsaq needs mining to grow again Ib Laursen: 'The status quo is not an option'

Greenland Minerals and Energy have spent much time trying to assure local residents that these concerns are misplaced.

"Other countries like Canada and France have uranium mining," says Ib Laursen, the company's operations manager as he drives around town. "If they can do it, we can do it in Greenland, we can take best environmental standards and put them to work here."

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Last year we reported on the dilemma of the Inupiat people in Alaska.

"We are the oldest continuous inhabitants of North America," says Point Hope's Mayor Steve Oomituk. "We've been here thousands of years."

Oomituk shares the fear of many in the small community - population 800 - that offshore drilling by Shell could destroy the food chain that they rely on for survival. Over 80% of the food eaten in Point Hope is caught by the people themselves.

We stop at an empty multi-story housing block, its windows smashed and boarded and insulation poking out through holes in the walls. Laursen has lived in Narsaq on and off for 10 years, and wants me to see the impact of people leaving town.

"Despite what people say I do have a social conscience, my heart is here," he declares. "I'm more worried about the mental pollution, in a place like this where you have more and more social issues.

"We need to break that circle we need to bring back jobs and opportunities to the region. And you cannot make an omelette without cracking some eggs, because this will be an industrial revolution for this area."

There's still a question whether that industrial revolution will ever happen. Despite years of government promotion, there are no mines currently operating in Greenland. But this year has seen the strongest signs yet that mining will become a reality.

As well as overturning the uranium mining ban, in October Greenland's government granted the first major new mining licence in years. Tanbreez Mining has applied for a licence to develop their mine, and there are several other companies likely to follow suit over the next year.

Climate change may also help speed the development of new mines, making minerals more accessible as Greenland's ice-cap melts.

If and when mines do go into production, ensuring that the benefits are maximised and the pitfalls avoided will be a huge challenge for Greenland's government. Avaaraq Olsen isn't sure they're up to it.

Helicopter Greenland has no roads outside of its cities and towns - intercity transport is by boat, plane or helicopter

"We are a young nation, we don't have enough experience," she says. "We don't have enough skilled people to work in the ministries who are going to secure our safety and our health."

But the mayor of South Greenland, Jorgen Waever Johansen, rejects the criticism.

"I know some groups around the world would like to have the Arctic as a prehistoric natural museum," he says. "But there are people here who want a good standard of living and want to be part of a global world."

Greenland is on its way to independence, he says proudly.

"Why should any people strive for independence if they don't believe in themselves?"

James Fletcher's Assignment is broadcast on the BBC World Service on January 2 from 00:32 GMT. Listen via BBC iPlayer Radio or browse the BBC documentary podcast archive.

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