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Prime Minister Aleqa Hammond arrived at the opening ceremony for this fall’s session of the Greenlandic parliament smiling and waving to the people. Everything seemed to be going according to tradition. Hammond and the other female members of parliament were dressed in high boots made of sealskin and anoraks decorated with pearl collars and pieces of dyed seal leather. Except for the minister of finance, decked in trousers made of polar bear fur, the men sported more modest black pants and white anoraks. All in all, the group made for quite a scene as it gathered in the Church of Our Savior in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland.
During the service, Hammond, who headed Siumut (Forward), the social democratic party, could finally enjoy a quiet moment in her home country. She had just returned from a busy schedule in the United States, where she was the keynote speaker at the UN World Conference on Indigenous Peoples and at the Climate Summit in New York. Right after that, she had flown to Washington to deliver a speech at the Brookings Institution on the status of Greenland’s underground mineral riches and to open Greenland's first diplomatic office in the United States.
But for Hammond, the respite was short-lived. Sitting in church, the assembled leaders strained to hear their own voices, their hymns drowned out by a cacophony outside. After the service, as the doors opened, the politicians were confronted with the source of the noise: a crowd of more than 1,000 disgruntled Greenlanders roaring, “Enough, Aleqa! Bye, bye!” Later, Hammond would write on Facebook that she feared for her life.
Just a year and a half ago, the 49-year-old Hammond had achieved a record electoral success when she won 22.6 percent of all votes in the general election, paving the way for Siumut to regain power after four years in opposition. Her popularity was partly due to her promise to work toward winning Greenland’s independence from Denmark. But lofty goals were soon overshadowed by more quotidian concerns. Quality of life in Greenland declined as unemployment rose to ten percent. Around 16 percent of the population was living in poverty, and reports of people searching for food at landfills were on the rise. The country’s deficit turned out to be over three times worse than expected.
And then Hammond’s popularity plummeted in the end of September after an audit commission blamed her for misuse of state funds—$17,000 spent on private flights and hotels for family members. The scandal, dubbed “Minibar-gate,” seemed all the worse given the official bio on the Greenlandic government (Naalakkersuisut) homepage, which read: “Aleqa loves to spend time with her family.… Often the children are brought along when she goes to work or while traveling.”
The ensuing furor was unusual. Greenland is a consensus and group-oriented society, where discontent is rarely publicly directed toward individuals. It is thus hard to overstate how shocking it was to see police officers shielding the prime minister as she walked from the Church of Our Savior to the parliament. She entered the building unharmed, but the following day her political career was over. Four ministers, including two from her own party, stepped down in response to public pressure. Within 24 hours, a national election was called for November 28.
UP FOR DEBATE
Four days before the election, voters gathered at the high school in Nuuk for an over two-hour-long debate in Greenlandic and Danish. Six parties were campaigning for 31 seats in the Greenlandic parliament. Supporters of the current opposition, Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA; Community of the People), waved flags with their party’s logo: a red flag with a white drawing of a harpoon and an ulu, a traditional Inuit knife made for ripping seal meat, and a yellow flag with a smiling sun, the antinuclear movement’s icon, to mark their aversion to uranium mining.
The largest two parties are the socialist IA, led by Sara Olsvig, a young anthropologist, and the social democratic Siumut, led by Kim Kielsen, a middle-aged former police officer and mariner. The debate was a head-to-head meeting between the two candidates for the power over the world’s largest island. Despite Minibar-gate and other accusations of nepotism and corruption, Siumut has managed to maintain its popularity and keep criticism directed solely at Hammond. Kielsen, who has been acting prime minister of Greenland, won Thursday’s election with just 326 votes .
The auditorium at the high school has an enormous panoramic window that looks out over the Davis Strait. The day of the debate, one of winter’s first major snowstorms was rolling across the land. The torrent of snow first hit a sculpture of the Dano-Norwegian Lutheran missionary Hans Egede, who established the first colony in Greenland in the 1700s. His statue stands on a hilltop overlooking the capital. It is often vandalized, not least because of the ties it represents to Denmark and the Western world in general.
And, as ever, independence from Denmark was on the agenda at the debate. In truth, Greenland could declare total independence any day. But the country is simply too economically reliant on its former colonizer. Denmark provides Greenland with an annual $600 million grant. It absorbs over 60 percent of Greenland’s exports and provides almost 65 percent of its imports. To achieve full independence, in other words, Greenland would have to find new trading partners. To balance its budget, it would also need to bring in $168 million more each year on top of the grant.
When she ran for office in 2012, Hammond promised to make up that shortfall by exploiting Greenland’s unused natural resources and lifting the long-standing ban on mining uranium. Global warming has melted the ice and made Greenland and its mineral riches more accessible than ever. Siumut did make good on its promises to repeal the ban on mining uranium, even though doing so required sacking one of the party’s two coalition partners, Partii Inuit, the day before the vote in parliament. The ban was ultimately overturned in a 15–14 vote.
But a year and a half later, it is clear that uranium mining will be no quick fix. The government once claimed that Greenland could easily become the world’s fifth-largest uranium exporter, with the potential to bring in revenues of $20 billion a year. Experts agreed. The political stability of Greenland and its convenient location by the open water make Greenlandic uranium attractive on the open market. But they also warned that it would take time. Denmark made it clear from the start that it would have to participate in all Greenlandic dealings with uranium, since the element can be used for nuclear weapons and because Denmark provides military protection for Greenland. And just the task of creating a legal framework for exporting uranium from Greenland would, according to Cindy Vestergaard, an expert on uranium policies, take five to ten years of planning.
Vestergaard has been proved correct. As she pointed out in a recent article for the Danish Institute of International Studies, the election is further delaying the uranium legislation. No wonder, that, as of now, there is no mining in Greenland for uranium or any other minerals.
SOMETHING ROTTEN IN GREENLAND
With no new income from uranium mining, Greenland’s economy is in trouble. Just days after Hammond stepped down, it was revealed that Greenland would have to restrict its shrimp catch (shrimp is the country’s primary export) on the west coast by 25 percent compared with the previous year’s catch if the industry is to become sustainable. Although the shrimp industry is privately owned, the loss in fishing fees and tax revenues will be substantial if the new government chooses to listen to experts.
And then Greenland lost an important source income: the $25 million it has received each year for providing maintenance and service to the American Thule Air Base, located in northern Greenland. This amount might not sound like much, but in a small community such as Greenland, it matters. Losing the contract—which went to an American provider that promised to do the job for 45 percent less—came as a shock. Since then, many Greenlandic politicians have lashed out against the United States and even criticized the prime minister for opening a diplomatic office in Washington, especially given that Greenland has virtually no trade with the United States. In their opinion, Beijing would have been a better choice, since China consumes a great deal of seafood. China is also seen as Greenland’s best bet for much-needed investment in the mining sector.
Given Greenland’s increasingly desperate economic situation—and its goal of independence—the mining story is far from over. Next year a Canadian company, True North Gems, will start mining the country’s rubies and sapphires, branding them as competition for those from Burma. Other mining projects are also moving ahead, including an operation run by Australia's Ironbark Zinc (with Chinese help), which plans to mine one of the world’s largest undeveloped zinc-lead deposits 100 kilometers southeast of the world's most northerly mainland point. Meanwhile, Greenland Minerals and Energy Ltd. is pressing forward with plans to dig for uranium. The company has already invested over $110 million in the project and claims it could raise Greenland's GDP of $2 billion by as much as 25 percent.
Still, the people and politicians of Greenland have seen that mining the mineral-rich underground is by no means a silver bullet. Nor is the fishing industry or tourism. Torben M. Andersen, professor of economics and chairman of the Economic Council in Greenland, recently warned that fishing exports have reached a maximum and that the potential for tourism is similarly limited. “Greenland is amazingly beautiful, but it will always be a niche for a certain kind of tourist, because of the price point and the difficult infrastructure,” says Andersen. “We are talking about tourists with a large checkbook that are not afraid to go for a long hike.”
Ultimately, the solution to Greenland’s problems has to be found in education. In order to develop a more robust, independent national economy, Greenland needs educated people on all levels—and it needs to keep them in Greenland. Today, 50 percent of all children graduate secondary school without the prerequisites for continuing their education. Over 60 percent of 16- to 18-year-olds are no longer in the educational system. The brain drain from Greenland is likewise substantial, and many expat Greenlanders cite higher living standards abroad as well as the bad education system as reasons for leaving Greenland.
The good news is that there are plenty of jobs available in Greenland for both skilled and unskilled workers. But because of a lack of stable labor and low educational attainment, Greenland imports an increasing number of workers from Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Thailand, and the Philippines. If Greenland manages to reverse this situation, it could grow its economy sustainably over the long term. Economic and political stability is key for the future of Greenland. Less than two years ago, Hammond campaigned for an “independent Greenland in her lifetime.” The prime minister elected this Friday is more likely to be looking at a Greenland that will be moving toward independence in the next two to three generations—after dealing with a troubling economy.
As Greenland’s new prime minister, Kielsen, put it during the debate, “We have talked and talked. Ever since 2005 we have talked about the necessary reforms, which will hurt. But enough is enough. We need to get started. We need to develop. We must look forward.” Here’s hoping that he makes good on his word.