Climate change brings new risks to Greenland

Inuit leader concerned, but confident, of country adapting to mining and oil exploration as Arctic icecap retreats

When the world’s miners, oil-workers, construction teams and industrialists descend on Greenland over the next few years to dig below the rapidly retreating icecap for its ores, hydrocarbons and minerals, no one will watch with more concern – or confidence – than the prime minister, Aleqa Hammond.

The Inuit leader of a country with just 56,000 people, living in remote, scattered communities largely by fishing and hunting, knows that the arrival of tens of thousands of foreign workers will be as economically important and as culturally disruptive as anything in Greenland’s history.

“The shock will be profound. But we have faced colonisation, epidemics and modernisation before,” she said.

“The decisions we are making [to open up the country to mining and oil exploitation] will have enormous impact on lifestyles, and our indigenous culture. But we have always come out on top,” she said on a visit to Norway this week. “We are vulnerable but we know how to adapt.”

Climate change, she said, had put Greenland at the heart of 21st-century geopolitics. As the ice retreats, it is moving from being a non-player in global affairs to the centre of a new international rush for resources. “Climate change and this resultant new industrialisation brings new risks. We must understand that the effects will be both positive and negative,” she says.

Not only has the retreat of the icecap made mining feasible in previously inaccessible areas, but the dramatic melt of the Arctic sea ice may within one or two generations locate Greenland on a vastly profitable transpolar trading route between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

Hammond, whose father died after falling the ice on a hunting trip when she was seven and who grew up without running water or central heating, is now being courted by world leaders who see the Arctic as an emerging strategic zone.

Chinese, American, Russian, British, Japanese, Korean and other companies have all staked claims for its resources, and her government has awarded more than 120 licences to explore for oil and gas, iron ore, uranium, emeralds and nickel as well as what are thought to be the largest deposits of rare earths – vital for digital technologies – outside China.

Greenland, which is seeking full independence from Denmark, is politically and socially split, with many saying Hammond and her new government are going too fast.

“If you want to become rich, it comes with a price,” said Aqqaluk Lynge, a Greenlander who is chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, which represents Inuits from Alaska, Greenland and Canada at the UN and other forums. People have to imagine the consequences of what the influx of foreign labour will be. Being a minority in your own country, is that what you want?

“We have to be more realistic. We should be very careful inviting foreign mining companies. We have had experiences before when whole towns have been changed with the influx of Danish contractors,” he said, but admitted: “We lack experts in many areas like health. 56,000 people cannot [do] everything.”

The estimates of how many foreign workers will be needed to exploit Greenland’s minerals range from 10,000 to 200,000. London Mining, which is behind a delayed project to build an iron-ore mine, is expected to bring in 2,000-3,000 Chinese.

“We fear being overwhelmed,” said Lynge. “It would be better if they lived in camps but there is certain to be interaction. We are well used to the fishing industry coming to Greenland but we do not know the culture of miners – the numbers could swamp us.”

But Hammond argues that because Greenland has been economically and politically marginalised for so long and because modernisation has been badly handled for the past 30 years that the country has no option but to go forward fast and seek independence from Denmark.

Hammond, a former minister for families who has worked in Inuit communities in Canada and at home, has seen how rapid cultural and economic change has devastated polar communities. Greenland has the highest suicide rate in the world and young people in particular suffer from major psychiatric illnesses and depression. According to government reports, one in every five people in Greenland attempts to kill themselves at some point.

There are many reasons put forward but the clash between traditional and modern western culture is thought to be at the root of many Greenlanders’ attempts to kill themselves.

“We’ve seen so many suicides over the years. They have always been there when people feel they cannot contribute to society,” said Hammond.

And the resource rush will bring with it new health problems. “We must counteract the illnesses of industrialisation, including diabetes and heart disease. Our lifestyles [can expect to shift] to what we see is happening to Europe and North America,” she said.

“The modernisation programme [of the past 30 years] has not helped everyone. The new developments will have profound effects on everyone but they are designed to make householders stronger.

We need to find ways to help people adapt – we need the money to be able to help households.

“One hundred years ago we all lived in communities of under 200 people. Now one-quarter of the population lives in the capital, Nuuk, and only 20% live in villages. In that time we have seen the rapid loss of traditional values,” she said. © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions