56,000 Greenlanders Could Shape the Future of Rare Earths

Washington and Beijing are watching a snap election on the huge island closely.

The Apusiajik glacier in Greenland.
An aerial photo shows a view of the Apusiajik glacier on the southeastern shore of Greenland on Aug. 17, 2019. Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images

Last month, Greenland’s coalition government collapsed amid an ongoing row over a new rare earth and uranium mine. Now, a new independent report calls for the Five Eyes intelligence alliance of the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada to build bridges with the island and its people in order to reduce resource dependency on China. As resource geopolitics become even more contentious, April’s snap election could be a turning point for the remote Arctic nation.

Among the lofty dramatics of geopolitics, international observers now find themselves paying attention to the operation of a tiny democracy of 56,000 people, most of it conducted in Greenlandic, and the rest in Danish. The same analysts who emphasize Greenland’s importance to securing supply chains also underline the need to develop healthy interfaces with Greenlanders and their democratic institutions.

Greenland’s status can be hard to pin down. It is an autonomous territory within the Kingdom of Denmark, free to and keen to develop further its independence from the Danes, yet constrained by its reliance on them for roughly half of its annual budget. Greenland’s citizens, mostly Inuit, are entitled to take over any of the many responsibilities currently fulfilled by Copenhagen—which include immigration, shipping, and some aspects of foreign policy—on the condition that they pick up the cost as well. Full independence is a constitutionally enshrined option, so long as it receives popular backing in a referendum.

The island’s geographical contours are also confusing. Although the Mercator projection vastly exaggerates its size, Greenland is still huge, three times the size of Texas. Its geography is mind-melting: To get to Japan from Greenland, the proverbial crow would fly north, touching down before a southward-flying competitor reaches Brazil. It’s hard to say where land ends and ice begins. Every year researchers scan the coastline for new islands revealed by the retreating glaciers, heaped upon Greenland’s vast interior, a significant part of which is below sea level. And they are melting at an astonishing rate, opening the land, which is rich in rare-earth minerals and other resources, just as the melting ice opens the surrounding sea.

A new report, produced by the U.K.-based Polar Research and Policy Initiative, describes how then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s offer to buy Greenland in 2019—which many islanders received as an insult—has impacted official thinking in the United States. Many there are increasingly aware, the report notes, that China is “simultaneously the world’s biggest reserve, producer, consumer, processor, importer and exporter of rare earths.” The United States has also taken notice of China’s recent survey of companies intended to determine how it can use its dominance in rare earths, as well as of suggestions in Chinese state media that rare earths could be a way of responding to new U.S. trade and tech barriers.

In February, U.S. President Joe Biden signed an executive order underlining America’s need for “resilient, diverse, and secure supply chains.” The order specified that the secretary of defense “shall submit a report identifying risks in the supply chain for critical minerals and other identified strategic materials, including rare earth elements” and produce “policy recommendations to address these risks.” The same week, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen argued that China’s dominance of rare earths is “not sustainable.”

As a result, Greenland is edging up the priority list in Washington, aided by a new U.S. Consulate in the Greenlandic capital of Nuuk that opened last June.

It is in this context that the Polar Research and Policy Initiative report calls for “a Five Eyes Critical Minerals Alliance that can contribute to building greater resource security for the UK and its allies through enhanced cooperation in, and with, Greenland.” It notes that of the 41 companies that hold licenses to exploit, explore, and prospect for resources in Greenland, 27 are “headquartered in, listed in or substantially connected to the UK, Canada and Australia.”

The report thus argues that “given the UK’s vast footprint in Greenland, it is as much in the interest of its Five Eyes and European partners, as it is in its own interest, to encourage a pivoting of UK foreign, defence, security and trade policy towards Greenland and the cultivation of a new UK-Greenland Special Relationship.”

These proposals are being taken seriously in the U.K. The Polar Research and Policy Initiative serves as secretariat for a new British parliamentary grouping, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Greenland, formed in November 2020. According to the group’s vice chairman, Conservative Member of Parliament Andrew Rosindell, who sits on the U.K.’s parliamentary Foreign Affairs Select Committee, the West “cannot afford to ignore” Greenland. “The region possesses an abundance of several critical minerals which provide the Five Eyes Alliance, upon which British security ultimately rests, a unique opportunity to reduce our dependence on China in resources essential to defence and security,” Rosindell told me by email. Alluding also to “China’s growing assertiveness in the region,” he said, “I urge the UK Government to engage with the very highest levels of the Biden administration to coordinate a response.”

Rare-earth production grew 9 percent from 2019 to 2020, and around 95 percent of processing is done in China—thanks mostly to cost advantage. Although rare earths are, counterintuitively, quite abundant globally, the 17 elements included in the category have a growing range of uses in emergent and existing high technologies, such as lasers, wind turbines, and nuclear control rods. Their importance to the next generation of green and military technologies is clear. Greenland’s large reserves, described by the U.S. Geological Survey as the world’s largest undeveloped deposits, could prove critical to spurring the West to catch up on processing.

The island’s inhabitants crave the economic strength that would allow them to cast aside the crutch of Danish fiscal support.

These reserves have a rather different significance in Greenland itself. The island’s inhabitants crave the economic strength that would allow them to cast aside the crutch of Danish fiscal support. Many welcomed a new U.S. aid package of $12 million announced last April, even as some Danish opposition parties decried it. The development of Greenland’s resource reserves is an obvious means by which to achieve this fiscal independence, with one 2013 poll suggesting that a majority support the extraction of such resources becoming the country’s main source of income. However, rare-earth sites, for all their potential, are often radioactive. That’s a particular concern in Greenland, especially given the damage caused by mining in Indigenous communities worldwide.

The development of one mine site, at Kuannersuit, has had a remarkable and telling effect on Greenland’s politics in the past six months. Kuannersuit would be “the world’s second-biggest rare-earth operation and fifth-biggest uranium mine,” according to the new report. It lies less than 6 miles from the town of Narsaq, whose 1,300 inhabitants make it the country’s ninth-largest settlement. Many of them are not satisfied with plans to store radioactive waste behind a dam, or to spray the ground with water to prevent radioactive dust from spreading throughout the area.

In November 2020, Greenland’s Prime Minister Kim Kielsen lost an election for the chairmanship of the ruling party, Siumut. Erik Jensen, who also serves as a member of Greenland’s 31-strong parliament, replaced him as chair of the party. Kielsen, however, refused to hand over the premiership, in apparent defiance of tradition, while Jensen began to suggest that he would alter Siumut’s position on the Kuannersuit mine, which the party had long supported. Decisions concerning the mine—as long as they don’t concern the export and control of uranium—are up to Greenland, not Denmark. Early in February, however, a bomb threat forced the government to delay public hearings on the mining project, which were to be held in Narsaq. Two weeks later, the Democrats party pulled out of its coalition agreement with Siumut, creating a power vacuum and necessitating a snap election, which will be held in April.

Greenland is home to just two operating mines, and the Kuannersuit project is as exceptionally divisive as it would be large. The site is being developed by the Australian firm Greenland Minerals, whose largest shareholder is the rare-earth giant Shenghe Resources, whose own largest shareholder is a research institute subordinated to a Chinese government department, facts that have attracted the interest of security researchers.

If Greenlanders progress toward independence, the significance of their collective decisions could one day extend beyond rare earths. For now, Greenland’s defense and foreign affairs are conducted by Copenhagen. The island’s position makes it strategically important to the entire Arctic. Its north hosts the Thule Air Base, originally established following an agreement between Denmark’s U.S. ambassador and the White House during World War 2. During the Cold War, the United States launched the notorious Project Iceworm, a U.S. plan to install nuclear warheads under the Greenlandic ice sheets—without the knowledge of the Danish government.

Recent developments suggest new bouts of intrigue. In 2016, the Danish defense ministry declined to confirm whether it had prevented a Hong Kong company from buying a disused naval base at Kangilinnguit, instead emphasizing to news agencies that it planned to reopen the base as a storage and training post. The next year, a delegation of “elite” Chinese tourists, a senior naval officer among them, surreptitiously visited the site of a proposed satellite station at Greenland’s main airport. Last month, the Danish government announced plans to bolster its presence in the region, aiming to spend lavishly on surveillance drones in response to what the Danish defense minister called an “increase in foreign activities.”

Greenland’s current limbo is one chapter in the long political saga of a people attached to their pristine landscape, yet hungry for change and the prosperity it could bring. They’re determined to declare independence, yet forever delaying it. The growing interest of large companies and foreign governments provides a striking backdrop to April’s election, in which a few thousand swung votes could create a landslide.

Sam Dunning is a freelance researcher and journalist.

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