Skip to main content

On an Arctic island with some of the world’s largest supplies of rare-earth elements, a heated debate about mining and its environmental costs will have big consequences for global superpowers

Open this photo in gallery:

Election posters hang by the roadside in Nuuk, capital of Greenland, ahead of the general and local elections on April 6.EMIL HELMS/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP via Getty Images

Elections in Greenland rarely get much notice beyond the shores of the ice-covered island. But when Greenland’s 41,000 voters head to the polls on April 6 in a snap election, the results will be followed closely in Beijing, Washington, Brussels and beyond.

Greenland has been caught in a global power struggle over access to rare earth metals, a collection of 17 elements with names such as yttrium, scandium and lanthanum that are used in more than 200 products, including cellphones, wind turbines, electric cars and fighter jets.

The island is home to some of the world’s largest deposits of rare earths, and a massive mining project in south Greenland has become a focal point in the race to secure the strategic resource.

The United States used to be the main producer of rare earths, but in the past 20 years, China has leaped ahead and now accounts for more than 90 per cent of global production.

The Chinese government has taken a keen interest in Greenland, and China’s Shenghe Resources is playing a key role in developing the proposed mine known as the Kvanefjeld project.

China’s increasing stranglehold over the elements has spooked the U.S., and the Americans have hit back by offering to help Greenland develop its resources and by opening a consulate in Nuuk.

Former U.S. president Donald Trump made a bizarre offer to buy Greenland in 2019, but President Joe Biden has also put a high priority on boosting the United States’ supplies of rare earths.

The European Union has grown wary of China, too, and recently launched a Raw Materials Alliance to increase Europe’s access to rare earths from places like Greenland.

“We are caught in the middle,” said Mariane Paviasen, a member of parliament from Narsaq who belongs to the main opposition party, Inuit Ataqatigiit.

“I think we have to be careful about which country we are going to work with.”

Open this photo in gallery:

Members of the opposition Inuit Ataqatigiit party, top, and the governing Siumut party, bottom, drum up support in Nuuk.Ritzau Scanpix via Reuters and AFP/Getty Images

The future of the mine has become a major issue in the campaign, and the outcome could determine whether it goes ahead after more than a decade of planning.

The ruling Siumut Party has long backed Kvanefjeld, but the party’s support has waned lately amid mounting public concern about the environmental impact of the vast open-pit mine. Siumut’s governing coalition collapsed in February largely because of a dispute about the project.

Inuit Ataqatigiit staunchly opposes the mine, and a recent poll put the party on track to win the most seats. If IA manages to form a coalition government with some of the smaller parties, it would mark only the second time since 1979 that Siumut has been out of power.

Greenland’s mineral riches have only recently come to light as climate change warms the Arctic and reveals big deposits of not only rare earths but also copper, zinc, lead, iron ore and nickel. The island, the world’s largest, has been under Danish authority for 300 years, but in 1979, it gained autonomy over a host of areas, including natural resources.

Many Greenlanders see mining as a critical way of diversifying the island’s economy, which relies largely on fish for exports. But for Ms. Paviasen and most of the 1,200 people who live in Narsaq, the mine threatens the area’s delicate ecosystem because one of the byproducts will be uranium. “The mine is only six kilometres from our town,” she said during a break from campaigning in Narsaq, which is nestled between the coast and a deep fjord. “I am concerned about the contamination and possibly large amounts of radioactive dust.”

The area is also home to several sheep farms, cattle ranches and a reindeer herd that will be harmed by pollution from the mine, she added. “We are risking to lose all those things – our culture, our way of living here in Narsaq will be changed enormously if the mine goes ahead.”

Open this photo in gallery:

The Narsaq Valley, shown in an undated photo looking toward Kvanefjeld mountain, has one of the world's largest rare-earth deposits, but locals worry about the environmental cost of extracting them.Greenland Minerals Ltd/Handout via REUTERS

Tension over Kvanefjeld has been running high. The government had to cancel a public information session earlier this year in Narsaq after it received a bomb threat. Some government ministers have also been the target of death threats, and another public meeting ended abruptly when a crowd of people started banging on windows and playing loud music.

“There are more political parties now that are opposing the uranium mine, and you also see a disagreement within the Siumut Party,” said Sara Olsvig, a former IA leader who is a fellow at the Institute of Social Science, Economics and Journalism at the University of Greenland. “Both experts and groups, fishing and hunting groups, that were silent just a few years ago are today stating their opposition to the mine.”

Proponents of the mine say it will provide badly needed jobs and give the island the financial heft to become an independent country. Greenland receives nearly half of its roughly US$1.2-billion annual budget in a grant from Denmark.

Under a 2009 law passed by the Danish parliament, Greenland can become fully independent if a majority of the population backs sovereignty in a referendum. Support for independence has been strong, but many people are leery about whether Greenland has the financial wherewithal to go it alone.

The company behind the project, Australia-based Greenland Minerals, says it will create up to 780 jobs and contribute US$100-million annually to the government’s coffers.

Kvanefjeld can “contribute in closing the gap in Greenland’s economy, which economists, using a slightly dramatic expression, have named the jaws of death,” the company says on its website. It added that the excavation can be done safely and that uranium makes up a small portion of the overall production.

Open this photo in gallery:

Nuuk's Myggedalen neighbourhood. Greenland is mostly self-governing but not fully autonomous from Denmark, and its mostly Inuit inhabitants are Danish citizens (and hence European Union citizens).CHRISTIAN KLINDT SOELBECK/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP via Getty Images

The company’s partnership with Shenghe has raised alarm bells in many Western capitals. The Chinese company is the largest shareholder in Greenland Minerals, and it has signed a deal to process and market all of the mine’s production. Greenland Minerals says Shenghe’s experience as one of the world’s top producers of rare earths makes it an ideal strategic partner. But the U.S. and its allies worry that China will use the extra supply as leverage in trade talks and other disputes.

The Chinese government has reportedly already been exploring ways of limiting rare earth exports to the U.S. in order to hold up development of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter jet.

Greenlanders appear to be generally hesitant about Chinese investment. A recent survey of 704 people by researchers at the University of Greenland found that 53 per cent saw China’s increasing influence in the world as a positive thing. However, only 32 per cent welcomed Chinese investment in Greenland.

Dr. Olsvig said the IA will have to tread carefully if it wins power and blocks the mine. China is a major buyer of Greenland’s prawns, halibut and cod, and the Chinese government has been eager to invest in infrastructure projects throughout the island.

Ms. Paviasen won’t make any predictions about the election, but she is hoping that the results will finally end the debate over the mine. “I think this is it,” she said. “This is the election where the decision will come.”

Open this photo in gallery:

EMIL HELMS/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP via Getty Images

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Check Following for new articles