Premier: Greenland’s future lies underground

Aleqa Hammond says that Greenland cannot consider independence unless it successfully takes advantage of its uranium-laced mineral wealth

Greenland is on the threshold of a new era brought about through the exploitation of its enormous mineral wealth, according to the new premier of the vast and thinly-populated territory.

Aleqa Hammond brought her Siumut party back into power in March after four years in opposition, and is in Copenhagen this week to formally present the formation of Greenland's new coalition government, as well as to meet with industry leaders to draft the potential for future Danish investment in Greenland’s mining industry.

But while Hammond spoke warmly of Greenland's relationship with Denmark – its former coloniser which still gives three billion kroner a year in financial support – the new premier is looking to guide Greenland toward greater self-sufficiency.

“An independent Greenland is our natural future,” Hammond told international journalists on Tuesday. “But if we want greater autonomy from Denmark, we have to finance it ourselves. This means finding new sources of income. There’s no other way.”

Greenland’s two key industries, fishing and tourism, have little potential for growth according to Hammond. Only the mining industry can raise the necessary revenue to allow the territory to become economically self-sufficient, a prerequisite for Greenland’s political independence.

Greenland’s vast mineral wealth is well-documented, but the presence of uranium within Greenland’s most profitable rare earth mineral deposits presents a major headache.

Denmark – and consequently Greenland as a member of the Danish commonwealth – has a zero tolerance policy on mining radioactive material and this rules out mining minerals if uranium were a by-product.

But Hammond refuses to let this stop Greenland from cashing in.

“We want mining to bring us the greatest possible economic benefit, and that is not possible without also mining uranium,” Hammond said.

Greenland’s ambition to sidestep Denmark’s zero tolerance policy is not unproblematic, however. Given the security issues that come with mining uranium, it may fall under Copenhagen's jurisdiction since Denmark is responsible for Greenland’s security.

Hammond argues, however, that Greenland ought to be able to set its own policy on uranium given that it was granted the jurisdiction over its natural resources with the 2009 Self Rule Act.

The premier stressed, however, that Greenland would not permit direct uranium mining and a new law would be needed to limit the concentration of uranium that would be allowed as a by-product of mining. Other regulations would be needed, she argued, to tax mining revenue, protect the environment and maintain security.

“We want to mine without destroying our environment, without endangering people’s health and without making the world less secure,” Hammond said.

Hammond added that while the mining industry should not end up affecting Greenland’s two other key industries, the country has a bleak future unless it can exploit its underground riches.

“Unemployment has exploded over the past four years,” Hammond said. “It has put us in a situation where if we want to invest in health and education, we need new income that will have to come from the future mining industry, whether we like it or not.”

Siumut was highly critical of the approach the former government took to fostering Greenland’s mining industry, most notably about its plan to seek revenue from powerful foreign companies.

The former government was in favour of taxing the profits of the companies after they had paid off their initial investment, which could run to tens of billions of kroner. Siumut, on the other hand, would rather adopt royalty charges for every tonne of material extracted from its underground.

Siumut also wants to revise the 'large-scale law' – passed by the former government after less than two months of consultation – which will effectively open Greenland to foreign investment and controversial cheap labour.

“It’s the most important law we have adopted in our recent history, and as leader of the opposition I found it outrageous," Hammond said. "The law needed to be discussed far more widely, inclusively and transparently than it was.”

The Greenlandic parliament has already agreed that revenue from the mining industry would be saved in a sovereign fund, similar to Norway’s, that could be used to lift the country’s finances during future economic hardship.

Hammond stressed, however, that greater economic stability was not the only change that Greenlanders would have to adjust to.

“We need to make sure we are better off after mining,” Hammond said. “This isn’t just easy money; it’s our livelihood. But mining will change us mentally and change how we see each other. Our labour market, language, economy and political arena will all change. We are going to change on all levels. And we need to explain this to all Greenlanders.”