Polar Politics


Kalista Poulsen covered his ears with a pair of seal fur gloves as two helicopters rumbled above his farm in southern Greenland. "Prospectors," he shouted over the roar of the choppers’ engines. "The sheep hate the noise they make."

They’re going to have to get used to it. As global warming continues to thaw the ice sheet that dominates this vast island, mineral companies are frantically prospecting for the resources being left in its wake. Already zinc, lead and diamonds have been found, while Greenland’s second gold mine will open later this year.

Offshore, the resource rush is equally intense. Taking advantage of melting sea ice, Chevron, Exxon Mobil and other energy giants are currently scouring Greenland’s seabed for the 30 billion barrels of oil and 50 billion cubic metres of liquid and natural gas that are estimated to be located there. And Poulsen’s sheep aren’t the only locals being affected.

The prospect of future resource wealth is fuelling a Greenlandic independence movement, with calls increasing for the Arctic island to cut ties with Denmark, its ruler since 1721. On Sunday that goal became closer than ever when Greenland assumed a significant degree of autonomy from Copenhagen. Under the new "self-rule" arrangement, which was overwhelmingly backed in a referendum held last November, Greenland will take control of its police, coast guard and judicial system. It gained control over health, education and social services under "home rule" in 1979. Kalaallisut (Greenlandic) will replace Danish as the territory’s sole official language, while Greenland’s 57,000 inhabitants — 88 per cent of whom are Inuit — will be treated as a separate people under international law. Only defence, monetary policy and foreign affairs will be conducted from Copenhagen.

Whether the new autonomy can provide a platform for independence depends largely on the role that resource revenue can play. Denmark currently pours 3.2 billion kroner (AU$740 million) annually into Greenland, a figure that represents two-thirds of the territory’s budget revenue. While this subsidy is set to continue under self-rule, Greenland will also earn up to 75 million kroner a year from any offshore oil and gas sales, with anything more divided; half going to the Greenlandic government and half coming out of Copenhagen’s annual subsidy. Should offshore resource revenue ever be sufficient to cover the entire subsidy, Greenland would be in a position to declare independence, something Denmark has said it wouldn’t oppose.

This rosy outcome, of course, depends not only on oil and gas being found, but also on the huge investments that would be required for exploitation to start paying dividends. Experts say this could be as long as 20 years away. But this has done nothing to dampen the hopes of supporters of independence.

"We won’t need Denmark once we find the oil," says Karl Anders Skifte, a fisherman from the town of Maniitsoq, north of the capital, Nuuk. "When this happens we can take back the independence that was stolen from our fathers and grandfathers."

Greenland’s government is taking a more cautious approach. While he thinks resource wealth will eventually lead to independence, recently elected Prime Minister Kuupik Kleist believes Greenland must first address its immense social problems — including rampant alcoholism, domestic violence and youth suicide — before getting carried away with "grand visions" for the future. "You can’t play the saint now," he recently told the Danish daily Politiken. "It would be a crime considering the distress that we’ve got to deal with here." Only when social issues have been addressed, says Kleist, should the focus be on independence.

But there are concerns that Greenlanders may be overly optimistic about the prospect of resource wealth. Minik Rosing is a Greenland-born geologist at the University of Copenhagen who thinks that if oil is found, the independence dream is over.

"I think it makes no sense to have a [sovereign]nation of less than 60,000 people sitting on a very large fraction of the last available oil on a planet with over 6 billion people," he says. "Trying to guard such a treasure living all alone in the North Atlantic would not be easy."

And Greenland’s neighbours know it. Right across the Arctic, troops are currently being deployed and patrols conducted as the region’s powers attempt to protect the probable resource wealth under their northern frontiers. Last year Russia announced it was boosting its combat presence in the Arctic, including near the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen. The United States has started conducting aerial patrols over Alaska, while Canada is planning to build a new deepwater Arctic port to house a fleet of polar patrol boats.

The situation is complicated by the fact that much of the Arctic Ocean is disputed territory. According to international law, a state’s exclusive maritime zone extends 200 nautical miles from its shore. Beyond that, 150 nautical miles of seabed may be claimed from where the continental shelf ends. The Arctic dispute centres on the Lomonosov Ridge, an underwater mountain range that spans 1800 kilometres between Siberia and Canada’s Ellesmere Island. Denmark (through its presence in Greenland), Canada and Russia all claim the ridge is an extension of their continental shelves, thus granting them any resources found there. The United Nations hasn’t yet reached a decision on the sovereignty of the ridge, but in the meantime Greenland — with the population of Wagga Wagga — finds itself in the middle of this mini Cold War.

Defence isn’t the only concern surrounding a resource boom in Greenland and the independence it may bring. Of Greenland’s potential workforce of 35,000, just one third have an education that qualifies them for a job above unskilled level. This means an army of foreign workers would be required to extract the resources, with the very real possibility of Greenlanders becoming a minority in their own land. Such an influx of foreigners out to make a quick buck has the potential to exacerbate the territory’s existing social problems. Minik Rosing thinks there is a naivety in Greenland as to the aims of the foreign companies that would operate in Greenland and the workers they would bring.

"Many people in Greenland believe that the world is run by principles of fairness and mutual respect, and that everybody appreciates the value of having indigenous populations preserved," he said. "Unfortunately the value of indigenous peoples is not universally celebrated."

And even if Denmark did leave, Greenland wouldn’t be free of foreign intervention. Since 1953 up to 10,000 US military personnel at a time have been stationed at the secretive Thule air base in the island’s far north, from where one of the world’s most advanced Ballistic Missile Early Warning System radars has protected America and its friends from potential missile attacks. Since its creation Thule has been unpopular in Greenland; Inuit hunters were expelled from their ancestral lands to create the 580 square-kilometre base, then there are concerns that not all of the four nuclear weapons on board an American B-52 bomber that crashed near Thule in 1968 were ever recovered.

Forty-one years on, Washington has no plans to leave Thule, or even clean up the host of abandoned smaller bases nearby that were returned to Greenlandic rule in 2003, some of which are thought to be contaminated with nuclear waste. Successive US administrations have maintained that Greenland should be thankful to house such an important base, and while Denmark has repeatedly requested that America clean up the sites around Thule, it has fallen on deaf ears. An independent Greenland is unlikely to force a change.

Kalista Poulsen’s farm is a world away from the frozen wastes of Thule. Nestled in the misty mountains of southern Greenland, it is one of just 53 sheep stations in the entire country. Poulsen is a winner of global warming; not since the Viking Erik the Red coined the name Greenland in 985AD have conditions been mild enough for large-scale sheep farming. As we walk across an emerald field backed by cloud-like icebergs floating in the adjacent fjord, Poulsen explains why he’s happy to keep the umbilical cord with Copenhagen firmly in place.

"The Danes have been good to us," he says. "We could have been colonised by the Americans, or the Russians, who would have been a disaster for Inuit culture. Denmark respects us, and looks after us."

When I ask whether Denmark would be needed if Greenland strikes gas and oil, Poulsen is sceptical. "But where is it? The politicians are always talking about oil, but at the moment it is just words; just noise from politicians." Politicians and helicopters.

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