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CWA # 459, 25 April 2021

Politics over Rare Earths
The Greenland election result is all about eco-geopolitics, and growing Chinese interests

  Harini Madhusudan

Though the snap elections are the effect of the failure of systems within the government, the election would stand as a cause between the major international, geopolitical, economic interests in Greenland and the environmental interests of its people.

In Greenland, two main political parties are divided over a giant project that involves the extraction and processing of rare earth minerals and uranium. With an economy that is strongly dependent on Denmark, the difference in opinion among these parties led to a snap election in the early week of April. 

On 6 April, Greenland's main opposition party, a left-leaning Community of the People party, or Inuit Ataqatigiit, secured more than a third of votes in the snap parliamentary elections. In the 31 seats Greenlandic National Assembly, this indigenous, pro-environment, and pro-independence party has secured 12 seats, with a 37 per cent share of the votes. The ruling centre-left Forward - the Siumut Party, could only win ten seats, with 29 per cent of the votes. 

Inuit Ataqatigiit's leader Múte Bourup Egede who campaigned with an anti-uranium stance, stated, "The people have spoken," and revealed that the project would be halted, and the head of the Siumut Party, Erik Jensen, admitted that the controversy surrounding the Kvanefjeld mine to be "one of the main reasons" for its defeat.  Two main themes were on the agenda for the elections. One, the living conditions of the people, and the second, the health and environmental concerns of the society at large. At the core of the snap elections stands the proposed international mining project by Greenland Minerals. This mining project is by an Australia-based company with Chinese ownership. Greenland Minerals has been seeking a licence to operate the Kvanefjeld mine in southern Greenland. Despite showing its intentions to break away from its economic dependence on Denmark, many concerns have been raised about the potential for radioactive pollution and toxic waste in the farmland surrounding the proposed mine.

A strong disagreement over the project within the Parliament led to the collapse of Greenland's Government earlier in 2021. 

The eco-geopolitics of the rare earths and the mining industry
So far, China accounts for more than 90 per cent of the global rare earth production. The Kvanjefeld is near the Ilimaussaq Alkaline Complex in southern Greenland. The project has promised a large-scale, low-cost, long-term supplier of products, with the location having year-round direct shipping access and comfortably situated less than 10 km from tidewater. Apart from uranium, estimates show the Kvanefjeld mine could hold the largest deposit of rare-earth metals outside China. The calculation has led to international interest in Greenland's natural resources. While the winning party has announced to halt the project, on 9 April, Greenland Minerals, which has been operating in the region since 2007, revealed that their environmental and social impact assessments would run till 1 June. The company is known to have met the requirements for public consultation and had been accepted by the Greenland government. 

Greenland's economy relies on fishing and subsidies from the Danish government for almost half of its budget. Due to the climate impact on the region and the melting ice, mining opportunities are increasing throughout the lower Arctic region. This is coupled with an increasing sentiment within a part of the Greenland society to move away from their dependence on Denmark. While Kvanefjeld's development strategy is focused on the production of rare earths, almost 80 per cent of the project revenue is expected to be generated with the production of uranium, zinc and fluorspar by-products. Greenland Minerals has often asserted that it is focused on the rare-earths and not just uranium. 

These production strategies of the company have raised strong concerns over the impact on the pristine environment of Greenland, but it also remains one of the very few sustainable options for the independence of the Greenland economy. Global warming and the impact of climate change has also upended a lot of traditional economic activities in the country, like hunting and fishing. The rapid melting of ice has also made regions more accessible and development-friendly. 

Growing Chinese interests
In recent years, Greenland has shown keen interest in attracting foreign investors to finance huge infrastructural and mining projects in the country with an aim to diversify its economy. To China, Greenland is the hypothetical arrival point of the Polar Silk Road through the Transpolar Route. However, China's attempts to start its mining activities in Greenland have met many roadblocks, either with issues related to the license, lack of skilled force, or because the projects involve extremely polluting extraction processes and threats to traditional livelihoods. There are two main mining projects that China has a particular interest in the Isua and Kvanefjeld projects. 

This election result marks an end to the Forward Party's almost-continuous reign of the Greenland National Parliament since 1979. The increase in popularity of the Inuit Ataqatigiit, and the increase in awareness of the impact of climate change, can be seen in line with the growth of green/ pro-climate/ pro-environment political parties within Europe. Though the left-leaning party has emerged victorious, an estimated 34 per cent of the voters have not voted for either party, which could mean that the other concerns of the Greeland peoples took a back seat over the mining issue. Though the snap elections are the effect of the failure of systems within the government, the election would stand as a cause between the major international, geopolitical, economic interests in Greenland and the environmental interests of its people; and often, economic interests take the lead. 

About the author

Harini Madhusudan is a PhD Scholar with the Science Diplomacy Programme at the School of Conflict and Security Studies, NIAS. Her PhD thesis is on Militarisation in Outer Space. Recently, she has started focussing on European politics. Her other interests include China and East Asia, Political-Economy, and the Politics of New Technologies.

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