Dispatch

The view from the ground.

How Greenland’s Mineral Wealth Made It a Geopolitical Battleground

Denmark’s semi-autonomous territory is coveted by China, the United States, and global mining companies.

By , a multimedia journalist from the Faroe Islands.
A Greenlandic flag flutters on a boat sailing among icebergs floating in Disko Bay, Ilulissat, western Greenland, on June 28.
A Greenlandic flag flutters on a boat sailing among icebergs floating in Disko Bay, Ilulissat, western Greenland, on June 28.
A Greenlandic flag flutters on a boat sailing among icebergs floating in Disko Bay, Ilulissat, western Greenland, on June 28. ODD ANDERSEN/AFP via Getty Images

Angutitsiaq Isbosethsen, 21, sits on a small hill close to Kangerluarsuk, a deep-frozen fjord in Kujalleq in South Greenland. His hometown, Narsaq, with 1,346 inhabitants, is 20 minutes away by boat. Isbosethsen works as a substitute teacher and a tour guide, taking foreigners around South Greenland’s archipelago. And since April 2021, he has been a member of the municipal council of Kujalleq, the largest municipality in South Greenland, for the governing party, Inuit Ataqatigiit, or Community of the People.

The view from the hill is emblematic of the political dilemma in his country, which is still part of the Kingdom of Denmark, as superpowers compete for its natural resources and a foothold given its strategic geopolitical location.

On his right, he sees a fjord where he says the locals fished hundreds of metric tons of cod in 2020. To his left is Killavaat Alannguat, known in Danish as Kringlerne, a mountain that is a potential rare-earth mining site. Tanbreez, an Australian company belonging to geologist and miner Greg Barnes, owns the mine.

Angutitsiaq Isbosethsen, 21, sits on a small hill close to Kangerluarsuk, a deep-frozen fjord in Kujalleq in South Greenland. His hometown, Narsaq, with 1,346 inhabitants, is 20 minutes away by boat. Isbosethsen works as a substitute teacher and a tour guide, taking foreigners around South Greenland’s archipelago. And since April 2021, he has been a member of the municipal council of Kujalleq, the largest municipality in South Greenland, for the governing party, Inuit Ataqatigiit, or Community of the People.

The view from the hill is emblematic of the political dilemma in his country, which is still part of the Kingdom of Denmark, as superpowers compete for its natural resources and a foothold given its strategic geopolitical location.

On his right, he sees a fjord where he says the locals fished hundreds of metric tons of cod in 2020. To his left is Killavaat Alannguat, known in Danish as Kringlerne, a mountain that is a potential rare-earth mining site. Tanbreez, an Australian company belonging to geologist and miner Greg Barnes, owns the mine.

Isbosethsen, who brought a rifle in case we sailed past some grouse during hunting season on our way back to Narsaq, is skeptical about mining—which is precisely what Greenland’s 2021 election was all about. Inuit Ataqatigiit won the general and many local elections with a promise to shut down Kuannersuit, another rare-earth mine with huge amounts of uranium that has caused massive controversy in recent years because of the potential environmental impact the uranium could have on the local area, which is the only one suited for farming in Greenland. Kringlerne is supposed to be an easier place to mine rare-earth minerals without facing a uranium problem because of the composition of the mountain.

So-called rare-earth minerals are essential for the development of everything from smartphones to military jets. Still, most of these rare earths today are mined in China or under Chinese control, and the United States needs other sources. In real life, as in the fourth season of the hit Danish TV series Borgen, there is currently a complicated dance between Denmark, its former colony, the United States, and China taking place on the cracking ice of the high Arctic.

Isbosethsen, who grew up between the two potential mines, would prefer no mine opened there. “I will always be against mining in Kuannersuit and Kringlerne,” he said as we looked at the huge mountain. “It will create problems if the big ships come into this fjord to collect minerals.”

Around 300 miles from Narsaq, Barnes was sitting in Pascucci, one of the most popular cafes in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland. The Australian is down to earth and was wearing a pointy hat and rain jacket. It was October 2021, and Barnes had been stuck in Greenland for months because of the strict travel regulations in his home country. Nevertheless, he tried to take the time to get the last licenses in place for his mining project in Kringlerne.

He is confident that his ongoing investment in the mountain, where no mining has yet commenced, would start paying off soon. “I can’t say 100 percent, but I am 95 percent sure I will have a mine in two years.”


Greenland stole the headlines worldwide when former U.S. President Donald Trump announced he wanted to buy the island in 2019. (Barnes was said to have inspired Trump’s wish—a claim the Australian laughed at and categorically denied when I met him in Nuuk.)

The politicians and population in the country are well aware of the growing attention they’re receiving. It isn’t new. Long before Trump, U.S. President Harry Truman proposed buying Greenland in 1946, hoping that the island could be a geographical defense against potential Soviet bombers.

But for those following Arctic politics, Trump’s interest wasn’t a surprise. Geopolitics in the Arctic has become increasingly fraught in the last decade, as Greenland has been of increasing interest to the superpowers—especially the United States and China. There are three main reasons for this interest, said Rasmus Leander Nielsen, an associate professor at the Center of Arctic Political Science and Economics at the University of Greenland: The melting ice will create new commercially valuable sailing routes from the east; Greenland maintains security importance to the United States as the site of its northernmost military base at Thule; and finally, Greenland could become a crucial rare-earth mineral source.

Greenland has a complicated history as a former colony that remains in a union with Denmark. Last year, when I was reporting there, the island had celebrated (or mourned) the 300th anniversary of colonization, marking the arrival of the Danish-Norwegian missionary Hans Egede on July 3, 1721. Greenland remained under Danish control until World War II, when the United States took control of the island as Denmark was seized by Nazi Germany.

After the war, Denmark reassumed control, but the United States maintained its presence in Greenland. Denmark joined NATO in 1949, and in 1951, the United States started building the Thule Air Base in secrecy. The installation, which at its height employed 10,000 people, was an important base for defending against possible Soviet attacks on North America during the Cold War and as a potential refueling point for U.S. aircraft. Today, the base is once again an important strategic asset for the U.S. military and its allies.

Greenland remained a colony until 1953, when it was formally incorporated into Denmark as a county, with the Danish constitutional change giving the territory two elected representatives in the Danish Parliament. But having incorporated the island as a county, Danish politicians set about lifting the living standard of Greenlanders to the same as their own. This so-called modernization process included forcefully emptying small villages to urbanize the population, sending groups of kids to Denmark for boarding school, and—as recently published in international media—placing IUDs in girls as young as 12 years old without their consent.

In 1979, Greenland, driven by young politicians who formed the social democratic party Siumut, achieved home rule and gained some autonomy from Denmark. In 2009, a new self-rule law recognized the Greenlandic right to self-determination, further independence, and the right to gradually take control of more areas such as policing, border control, and the administration of minerals. In 2010, they decided to take control of minerals. Greenlanders are allowed to profit from their own subterranean wealth, but if they earn more than 75 million Danish kroner annually ($10 million), half of the profits would go to decreasing the annual Danish subsidies, which amounted to 3.9 billion Danish kroner (approximately $511 million) in 2021.

But even though the minerals belong to Greenlanders, foreign and defense policies remain under Copenhagen’s control and under the law would only come under Nuuk’s control if Greenland becomes fully independent from Denmark. That has sometimes created challenges, given that the line between security and minerals can get blurred in a geopolitical hot zone.

Still, Erik Jensen, chairman of Siumut, hopes that significant parts of the foreign policy will be under Greenlandic rule soon. “We’re right in between the superpowers,” Jensen said. “Right in between Russia, the U.S., and China.” He added that Denmark is a big player in NATO mainly because of Greenland and that the local population should reap the benefits of that position. “We want to know what happens between the U.S. and Denmark concerning Greenland,” he said. “No talk about Greenland without Greenland—that’s what we say in our party.”

Former Prime Minister Lars-Emil Johansen, who lives in a small apartment on the outskirts of the capital, also insisted that Greenland had to take more power over decision-making in the country. “A lot that we didn’t know anything about was happening,” he told Foreign Policy. “We trusted the Danes blindly.”

One of the founders of Siumut, Johansen is a fierce republican and was active in the negotiations that led to home rule in 1979 and self-rule in 2009. Siumut, now with Jensen as chairman, is in charge of the Greenlandic foreign ministry, which has operated for years even though foreign policy, strictly speaking, falls under Danish authority. Jensen says that they are working on specific plans to bring foreign policy under Greenlandic control. “I don’t want to put a date or time horizon on it, but … foreign policy is one of the areas we should take charge of in the near future.”

Despite Copenhagen’s oversight of foreign affairs, Greenland makes its own trade agreements. On a few occasions, Chinese investors have tried to gain a foothold in the market. In 2016, a Chinese company emerged as one of a few buyers of an old naval station in Greenland. In order to prevent the Chinese from buying it, then-Danish prime minister, Lars Lokke Rasmussen, allegedly worked to reopen the former military station. And in 2018, Lokke Rasmussen rushed to Greenland to offer investment to help upgrade airports, after a state-owned Chinese company was preapproved for construction.

According to Peter Viggo Jakobsen, associate professor at the Institute for Strategy at the Royal Danish Defense College, China’s goal with these investments has been to gain a foothold in the Arctic, and Beijing sees Greenland as a potential gateway for influence in the region—especially if Greenland at some point achieves independence. “They believe that because almost 20 percent of the world’s population live there, they should have access to the Arctic and 20 percent of the potential resources there,” he said. Eyck Freymann, author of the book One Belt One Road: Chinese Power Meets the World, said that he didn’t think the U.S. interest in Greenland is as much about access to rare-earth minerals as it is about keeping China from gaining influence.

“The U.S. increasingly sees China’s rise as a zero-sum process, in which every additional increment of advantage that China gets comes at the expense of the United States,” he said. He underlined that the United States needs Greenland for essential military functions but that Greenland has several times called for renegotiations of the terms on which Washington stays in Greenland. “The U.S. is not just afraid of having Chinese ships sailing around in the region. … It also really doesn’t like the idea that Greenland could tip over to become a Chinese proxy.”

The superpowers’ interest in Greenland has also manifested itself in the diplomatic arena. In 2019, the U.S. government announced plans to open a consulate in Greenland after not having a physical presence there for decades. The current consul in Greenland, Joanie Simon, told FP in an interview that while security issues fall under the Danish realm and the U.S. ambassador to Denmark, the Greenlandic consulate is trying to facilitate investment in mining.

“We’re definitely working on minerals here. The State Department has, for example, provided expert, independent advisory consultants, to the ministry of mineral resources … to do things like modernize the data systems, and get a better understanding of what kind of minerals there are here and chart pathway to market for those minerals, hopefully, to draw in really excellent investors so that Greenland can achieve its goal of being a key in the green transition,” she said.

Johansen said that he and the other founders of Siumut were aware of the fact that they were important geopolitically and provided Denmark relevance on the international stage. “We have always been aware of the importance of our strategic location,” he said. “And it’s also here that the natural resources are.”


In Narsaq and the rest of South Greenland, the anti-uranium movement is strong, and it became the determining factor of the election in 2021. Since 1979, Siumut had led all governments except one from 2009 to 2013, when Inuit Ataqatigiit ruled for four years. But Inuit Ataqatigiit promised to stop the Kuannersuit mine, and with Siumut divided, the opposition’s message got through.

After the election, the party chairman of Inuit Ataqatigiit, Mute Egede, formed a government with Naleraq, a smaller but ideologically similar party. The coalition delivered on the promise of stopping Kuannersuit last year. Since then, the company Greenland Minerals has filed a case against the government in the court of arbitration in Copenhagen, where they seek to either restart mining operations or get economic compensation for lost investment.

But Egede earlier this year announced that he would form a new coalition with Jensen and Siumut, who have been more pro-mining. Jensen told me that they hadn’t changed their mind but made a compromise that both parties were happy with. “If the next election leads to a pro-mining majority, we will have a referendum to make a decision about Kuannersuit,” he said.

But the party leader also emphasized that it was important to him that the rare earths mined wouldn’t be used in the defense industry and said a screening process was put in place to prevent this. (This is a wish most experts see as an unrealistic demand. Greenland simply won’t be able to decide where the raw materials end up.)

Meanwhile, Barnes has acquired his license to start mining, overcoming bureaucratic roadblocks and complying with environmental standards. Now he only needs investment to start. “The best I’ve got is 19 calls from China in one day,” he said. “They want to buy me and the project.”

But Barnes, who was hunting for investors when we last spoke, thought it would be easy to get started with help from U.S. investors, as a significant amount of rare-earth minerals are already under Chinese control. “The U.S. government needs rare earths for toys for defense. We understand that.”

Last year, the Danish prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, created a foreign policy, security policy, and defense policy cooperation council where representatives of Denmark, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands would meet annually. Her foreign minister at the time, Jeppe Kofod, claimed the council would try to reach agreements on the issues that are technically controlled by Greenland or the Faroe Islands but could present challenges in regard to foreign policy and security.

The new Danish government formed on Dec. 15 is committed to continue working within this forum, not to make any decisions about Greenland and the Faroe Islands without consulting the local authorities, and even committed to including the former colonies in negotiations for a new defense reform in Denmark. But, in the end, Denmark is just a small player in the geopolitical confrontation between superpowers.

If its biggest NATO partner wants to keep China out of the Arctic, Denmark’s pledge to consult its former colonies won’t change that.

Thank you to the Tony Horwitz Fellowship for supporting this reporting.

Regin Winther Poulsen is a multimedia journalist from the Faroe Islands. Twitter: @PoulsenRegin

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