Greenland Surveys Its Icy Options: The Choice Is Stark. the Inuit Homeland Can Be a Missile Defence Base or Lose Its Danish Subsidy

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Axel Olsen smiles his broad, infectious smile. The deputy mayor of Qaanaaq, one of the world s most northerly towns, is serving me a local delicacy--narwhal steak, fresh from the sea. What's tickling him most, however, is the unusual invitation he's just received: dinner next Tuesday with the Danish and American commanders at the Thule airbase. A helicopter will arrive at 5pm and return at midnight--a round trip of about 220 miles. Olsen says he has never been offered quite so expensive a meal.

Nato's charm offensive towards Inuit such as Olsen has been close to full throttle for more than two years now, ever since George W Bush made clear that the Pentagon's controversial plans for a missile defence shield were a top priority. The so-called "Son of Star Wars", an advanced way of blowing enemy missiles out of the sky, requires not just effective weaponry (itself a problem until now), but also early warning. Thule offers precisely that. The most northerly US military outpost since 1951, the airbase houses Washington's most comprehensive radar coverage of the polar region and, along with the Fyling-dales base in Yorkshire, its only advanced early warning system in the North Atlantic. Unlike the pliant British, the Greenlandic body politic is in uproar about the US missile defence plans.

"We know the Russians are against it, the Chinese are against it," Olsen observes, "so we are against it. If they upgrade the radar at Thule, that will make us a military target. Maybe even a nuclear target."

The fears are symptomatic of Greenland's long-standing resentment over its perceived vassal status, a resentment directed both at the US military and at the island's colonial masters in Copenhagen. Despite granting Greenland a large degree of home rule in 1979, Denmark is the predominant cultural and political force in Greenlandic life and directly controls foreign policy and defence. It was a grateful, postwar Denmark that granted the Americans control over the 300-square-mile Thule site back in the 1950s without giving much thought to local Inuit concerns. The arrival of heavy aircraft, military vehicles and hundreds of servicemen forced an entire community from their traditional home and hunting grounds.

"We had no choice," recalls the 80-year-old Uusaqqak Qujaukitsoq, who led the exodus from the settlement at Uummannaq in 1953. "The noise was driving away the seals and walruses. So we had to come here and build a whole new town in Qaanaaq. No one helped us, neither the Americans nor the Danes." The sense of grievance doesn't end there. In 1968, a B-52 crashed a few miles off the coast. Qujaukitsoq and other hunters rushed to help, not realising that the aircraft had scattered four nuclear warheads across the sea.

Some fairly tortured legal claims have dragged their way through the Danish courts over the past decade, granting the local Inuit compensation both for the loss of their homes and for the feared environmental damage caused by the air crash. …