Greenland election shows divide over rare-earth metals mine

Tuesday, April 6, 2021 | Jari Tanner, Associated Press


A wall of election posters for candidates of the upcoming election to Greenland parliament, in Nuuk, Greenland, Tuesday March 30, 2021. The autonomous territory within the Kingdom of Denmark, Greenland, will hold an election to its Parliament consisting of 31 members, on April 6, 2021. (Emil Helms/Ritzau via AP)

HELSINKI (AP) — Greenland is holding an early parliamentary election Tuesday focused in part on whether the semi-autonomous Danish territory should allow international companies to mine the sparsely populated Arctic island's substantial deposits of rare-earth metals.

Lawmakers agreed on a snap election after the center-right Democrats pulled out of Greenland's three-party governing coalition in February, leaving the government led by the center-left Forward party with a minority in the national assembly, the 31-seat Inatsisartut.

One of the main reasons the Democrats withdrew was a deep political divide over a proposed mining project involving uranium and rare-earth metals in southern Greenland. Supporters see the Kvanefjeld mine project as a potential source of jobs and prosperity.

Outgoing Prime Minister Kim Kielsen pushed to give the green light to mine owner Greenland Minerals, an Australia-based company with Chinese ownership, to start operation. Erik Jensen — Kielsen’s recent successor as Forward party leader — is more hesitant and has been opposed to granting outright a mining license to the company.

Recent election polls showed the left-leaning Community of the People party (Inuit Ataqatigiit), a staunch opponent of the mine project, in position to become the largest party in the Greenlandic Parliament.

The opposition party has claimed that a majority of Greenland’s 56,000 inhabitants, most of them indigenous Inuit people, are against the project, largely for environmental reasons.

Observers stress political surveys in Greenland have proved to be uncertain, and the over 30% support level enjoyed by the Community of the People party in pre-election polls may not necessarily hold.

“A third of the voters decide at the last minute, and the support for (Community of the People) is overestimated,” said political scientist Leander Nielsen at the University of Greenland, as quoted by the Norwegian news agency NTB.

One of the Forward's party's initial justifications for granting a mining license to Greenland Minerals was that the proceeds from the project would strengthen Greenland’s economy and thus help in efforts to disengage the island completely from Denmark through independence — an ambition nurtured by Forward, the Community of the People and some other parties.

“In the past, I was very preoccupied with the fact that, of course, we must be independent. And so will we one day,” Greenland resident Lise Svenningsen told the Danish public broadcaster DR. “But I think that we should focus much more on the conditions of the population, and that politicians should try to act on things they promise year after year.”

The mining proposal is relevant beyond Greenland. The largely ice-covered island has the world’s largest undeveloped deposits of rare-earth metals, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Estimates show the Kvanefjeld mine could hold the largest deposit of rare-earth metals outside China, which currently accounts for more than 90% of global production.

Rare-earth metals are used in a wide array of sectors and products, including smartphones, wind turbines, microchips, batteries for electric cars and weapons systems.

In 2019, former President Donald Trump floated an idea to buy Greenland for the United States from Denmark for strategic reasons. The initiative was met with uproar in Copenhagen and dismissed as an absurd idea. However, international interest in Greenland has continued as major powers — the U.S., China and Russia — are racing to establish their presence in the Arctic.

Washington opened a U.S. consulate in Nuuk, Greenland's capital, last year as part of a new Arctic strategy adopted by the Trump administration.

Under a 1951 deal, NATO member Denmark has allowed the U.S. to build bases and radar stations on Greenland. The U.S. Air Force currently maintains one base in northern Greenland, Thule Air Force Base, 1,200 kilometers (745 miles) south of the North Pole.

Greenland, the world’s largest island that is not a continent, has its own government and Parliament, and relies on Denmark for defense, foreign and monetary policies.

Voting in Tuesday's election is set to end at 2200 GMT. Initial results are expected on Wednesday.

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