The treasure hunt of the great powers
By Tone Sofie Aglen
Think again if you thought the election in Greenland was too particularly interested. Both the USA, China and Russia follow what is happening on the Arctic island with an arguing eye. But we northerners have extra good reason to look up.
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When the people of Greenland go to the polls on Tuesday, it is because a large mining project divides both country, people and politicians. The core of the dispute is whether the Australian mining company Greenland Minerals will be allowed to extract rare earths from Kvanefjell near the town of Narsaq on the southern tip of Greenland. The government disbanded, and had to call new elections.
The two major parties in the country have different views on the mining plans. The Social Democratic ruling party, Siumut, supports the project, but is torn apart by internal strife. The left-wing party, the Inuit Ataqatigiit, is the big favorite to win the election on its opposition to mining.
But the result engages far greater superpowers than the roughly 55,000 inhabitants who live on the autonomous island that is part of Denmark. Greenland’s rich natural resources are many who want to get their hands on.
The conflict is in familiar and lesser known tracks.
Should one extract natural resources, which provide jobs and much-needed income? Or should one only take into account the environmental interests? It is a classic dilemma that divides many a community.
In this case, the answer depends on the eyes that see. The rock is full of rare minerals that are important ingredients in new, green technology. They are central in the production of powerful magnets and electronics, which are used in smartphones, electric cars, solar cells and wind turbines, among other things. This is absolutely crucial for achieving the climate goals, some would argue.
But the rock also contains toxic fluorine and radioactive substances such as uranium and thorium. Critics fear that it will pollute nature for years. The waste must be disposed of, and can threaten drinking water, sheep farming, agriculture and tourism. They fear that the mine will turn the scenic area into a ghost town. As the activists say: “We have lived here for thousands of years. We must not pass on a polluted country ».
Also read the comment: Where are we (not) going?
But this is now far more than a local conflict over natural resources. Both the USA, China and Russia have their eyes fixed on Greenland and the Arctic. It is, of course, about the strategic location, which gradually becomes more central as the ice melts. The “polar Silk Road” can significantly shorten the voyage compared to the Suez Canal, which in recent days has proven to be not entirely without problems.
Huge natural resources are hidden under the ice that are gradually melting. Greenland has proven to be rich in rare earths and minerals that are absolutely crucial in technological development. They are not only raw materials in green technology, but also critical components in high technology such as fighter jets, missiles, weapons, PCs and medical equipment. They are essential, but difficult to get out of the ground and put into production.
So far, China holds 80 percent of the market for rare earths. In 2016, it was a Chinese company that bought into the Australian mining company that wants to extract minerals in Greenland. If they get the thumbs up, it could be the third major mine outside China.
But the Chinese do not only have control over natural resources. They also have the best technology, and in reality have a monopoly on the entire value chain. It is enhanced by a number of patents on everything from mining to finished products. It worries more and more people, including EU President Ursula von der Leyen.
The battle for Greenland
Greenland has now been designated as an opportunity to reduce its dependence on China. It peaked with President Donald Trump’s little diplomatic proposal to buy Greenland. It fell on rocky ground, but in recent years the US authorities have sent several delegations on charm offensive to Greenland to get a collaboration on raw materials. But so far, only the Chinese have made long-term investments.
The paradoxes are in line. It was precisely the environmental problems that caused the United States to stop work on similar mining operations in the 1990s. The Chinese were less concerned about the environment, and American industry chose to relocate to China.
At the same time, the same Trump gets the credit for giving Greenland’s status a real boost. Many people opened their eyes to Greenland, which is not just a tailgate to Denmark full of social problems and uncultivable land.
But Chinese investment appetite is not looked upon with kind eyes in our neighboring country. Denmark’s intelligence service has expressed concern about what it describes as China’s growing interest in investing in Greenland. This applies to research, mineral extraction, infrastructure and tourism. Danish authorities intervened when the Chinese wanted to build three airports on the island. Greenland’s dependence on China is completely unacceptable for Denmark, the Danish newspaper Politiken writes in a leading position the day before the election.
These should be familiar tones for Norwegian ears. Both Russia and China are mentioned by the e-service as a threat to Norwegian interests. In the keynote speech, there is warm talk about the High North and the valuable resources we will live on. Nevertheless, there is no doubt about which two countries show the most interest in developing resources and infrastructure in our northernmost areas.
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