Independence for Greenland: Not If, but When

By Hinrichsen, Don | Scandinavian Review, Autumn 2012 | Go to article overview

Independence for Greenland: Not If, but When


Hinrichsen, Don, Scandinavian Review


Will the promise of increasing access to its oil and mineral riches as a result of rapid global warming speed the seeming inevitability of independence for Denmark s Arctic possession?

GREENLAND, WHICH COVERS JUST over 836,000 square miles of rugged, mostly ice-smothered terrain, is the world's largest island. By contrast, its population of just 57,000 makes it one of the least inhabited parts of the planet. Despite the name - coined by the rogue Danish Viking, Erik the Red, who founded a colony on the south shore in A.D. 982 - most of the island sits above the Arctic Circle. Nuuk, the capital of this icy land, is the only town of any size below the Arctic Circle. Nearly 80 percent of the island is permanently covered in ice, some of it more than two miles thick. It also contains 10 percent of all the freshwater on the planet; if it were all to melt, global sea levels would rise by slightly more than 20 feet.

In what has been described as the world's first PR ploy, Erik the Red hoped that the name 'Greenland' would draw other Vikings to this frigid land. His settlement lasted some four centuries, before disease and warfare wiped them out.

The Danes returned in 1721 and permanently occupied the island. Greenland was a Danish colony until 1953. At that time, the total population was only about 10 percent of what it is today. Currently, 90 percent of the population consists of Inuit; the remaining 10 percent are transplanted Danes and a smorgasbord of other nationalities.

Since the 1950s, Greenland's governance structure has been evolving slowly towards independence. In 1979, home rule was introduced, though Denmark continued to provide generous yearly subsidies amounting to around $560 million, or just over half of the island's national budget. Danes still controlled the island's foreign affairs, provided for defense and policing, and managed the judicial system and financial policy.

In June 2009, the Act on Greenland Self Government was passed, another milestone on the road to complete independence. This was a significant step. Greenland assumed complete responsibility for and control over all mineral and hydrocarbon rights from Denmark. The Greenland government, currently headed by Prime Minister Kuupik Kleist, who came to power in 2009 at the head of the socialist Inuit Ataqatigiit Party, aims to make the island financially independent by 2015, with complete political independence by 2020.

"We now believe that we can free ourselves from Denmark's economic and political domination," Kleist told a Bloomberg News reporter last year.

SELF-GOVERNMENT ALSO GAVE GREENLAND THE RIGHT TO pass its own legislation as well as take responsibility for overall administration of the island, including financial affairs. Under the Act, Greenland also has the right to control its own borders and determine immigration policy, along with oversight of ship registration and maritime matters, as well as judicial authority and management of the police force.

Not all of these changes are occurring simultaneously, but will be phased in over time, as the island becomes more self-sufficient and better able to stand on its own feet. Meanwhile, Denmark still provides some $500 million a year in subsidies.

For most Greenlanders, complete independence rests on the assumption that the island's potential hydrocarbon and mineral wealth can be economically exploited over the next few years. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the island and its surrounding waters could hold 48 billion barrels of oil equivalent, double U.S. proven oil reserves. The island is also laced with mineral deposits, mostly iron ore, zinc, gold, platinum and uranium.

The key will be how fast this resource windfall can be exploited. In 2010, the Edinburgh-based company, Cairn Energy, found gas in Baffin Bay. This triggered a stampede of oil and gas companies: Greenland received 17 applications from 12 companies to explore hydrocarbon potential in Baffin Bay alone. …

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