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Members of the IA (Inuit Ataqatigiit) party wave party flags as they celebrate the exit poll results of the legislative election in Nuuk, on April 6, 2021.

EMIL HELMS/AFP/Getty Images

The future of a massive mining project in Greenland that has caught the attention of China and the United States has been thrown into doubt after the autonomous Danish territory’s main opposition party scored a victory in Tuesday’s general election.

Final results from the election put Inuit Ataqatigiit, which opposes the mine, on track to win 12 seats in Greenland’s 31-seat parliament. IA Leader Mute Egede will now begin negotiations to form a coalition from among four other parties that won seats. IA also won three of Greenland’s five municipal mayoralty contests, including South Greenland, where the proposed mine is located.

“The people have spoken,” Mr. Egede, 34, told Danish radio when asked about the project, known as Kvanefjeld. “It won’t happen.”

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The ruling Siumut Party, which backed the mine for years but wavered recently, finished second with 10 seats. However, analysts say it’s unlikely Siumut will be a coalition partner because of internal dissent over the party’s leadership.

Although Greenland is part of the Kingdom of Denmark, it has autonomy in a number of areas, including natural resources. The election has been watched closely in Washington and Beijing because of the island’s growing importance as a source of rare-earth metals, a group of 17 elements that are used in more than 200 products, including cellphones, wind turbines, electric cars and fighter jets. Greenland has some of the world’s largest deposits, and the proposed mine has become a focal point in the race to secure supplies.

China’s Shenghe Resources is playing a key role in developing Kvanefjeld, much to the consternation of the U.S. and its allies. China already dominates the production of rare-earth metals, and the U.S. and other Western countries are desperately trying to catch up.

The mine has been in the works for more than a decade, but opposition to it has been building because one of the byproducts of its open-pit excavation will be uranium. There are concerns that radioactive dust could pollute farms, ranches and fishing operations around Narsaq, a coastal town of about 1,200 people only a few kilometres from the mine site.

“This year it has been very clear that there’s a big majority against the mine,” 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. “There is a very big possibility now that the uranium mine will not be realized,” she added in an interview Wednesday.

Ms. Olsvig cited a recent poll that found 71 per cent of those surveyed opposed uranium mining in Greenland. She also pointed out that IA’s triumph in South Greenland reflected local opposition to the mine because Siumut had held the mayoralty there for years.

Mr. Egede will have to tread carefully if he tries to scrap the project. China is a major buyer of Greenland’s fish, its biggest export, and the Chinese government has offered to invest in several infrastructure projects. There are also several other proposed mining projects under way, including another rare-earth mine, and halting Kvanefjeld could make it difficult to attract investment. Many Greenlanders see mining as a critical way for the island to diversify its economy and build the financial clout to gain independence from Denmark.

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Ms. Olsvig said IA and other political parties have been careful not to oppose the development of the island’s resources. “All parties, including IA, wish to develop mineral resources,” she said. “They wish to diversify the economy of Greenland, but the particular Kvanefjeld project, because of the uranium and because of its location, the resistance to that particular mine has been very, very strong. But that doesn’t mean that Greenland will not develop other projects.”

Greenland has managed so far to balance the interests of China and the U.S. The previous government signed an agreement with Washington to help develop the island’s energy and mineral wealth. It also announced plans to open a consulate in Beijing this fall.

Ms. Olsvig said that while international affairs weren’t a major issue during the campaign, “there is an awareness in Greenland that there’s a need to find a balance, to continue to be able to export fish and shrimp to East Asia, including China.”

Rasmus Leander Nielsen, an assistant professor of social science at the University of Greenland, said Kvanefjeld could yet survive. The majority owner of the project, Australian-based Greenland Minerals, has spent roughly US$100-million so far on planning costs and will likely wait for the next election, he said. “The only way they can do it is to sit this one out and wait for another political majority at some point in the future.”

He added that there are pockets of support for the mine, and polls show Greenlanders overall want to broaden the island’s economic base. “It is important for the new government to make a strong signal to the mining community that it’s only this particular project that is problematic,” he said.

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