Greenland went into legislative elections on Tuesday, after a campaign focused on a disputed mining project in the autonomous Danish territory as the Arctic island confronts first-hand the effects of global warming.
Greenland’s two main parties are divided on whether to authorise a controversial giant rare earth and uranium mining project, currently the subject of public hearings.
Supporters, including the ruling social democratic Siumut party, say the mine would yield an economic windfall. Opponents, such as the opposition left-green IA (Inuit Ataqatigiit) party, argue it could harm the vast island’s unspoilt environment.
Greenland’s geostrategic location and massive mineral reserves have raised international interest, as evidenced by former US president Donald Trump’s swiftly rebuffed offer to buy it in 2019.
The election campaign for parliament’s 31 seats has also centred on fishing, the main driver of Greenland’s economy.
And at a time when young Greenlanders are reconnecting with their Inuit roots and questioning their Danish colonial heritage, social issues and cultural identity have also been part of the debate.
People lined up as polling stations opened for the island’s roughly 40,000 voters. “I’m not voting like the last few times,” said Frederik Gronvold, who arrived early and said he wanted to see the development of fishing across the country. “I’m hoping for change.”
Stations are due to close at 8pm local time (22.00 GMT), with final results expected early Wednesday.
IA is leading in the latest opinion polls with around 36% of voter support, while Siumut, which has been in almost uninterrupted power since Greenland gained autonomy in 1979, is trailing with 23%.
However, experts have warned the outcome is uncertain. Opinion polls “often put IA way too high in the polls”, University of Greenland political scientist Rasmus Leander Nielsen said. “A third of voters don’t make up their minds until the last minute.”
Nor was it likely that either of the two biggest parties would get a majority. The most likely scenario, he said, was “that IA forms a coalition with one or two smaller parties”.
IA has called for a moratorium on uranium mining, which would effectively put a halt to the mining project.
The Kuannersuit deposit, in the south of the island, is considered one of the world’s richest in uranium and rare earth minerals – a group of 17 metals used as components in hi-tech devices such as smartphones, flat-screen displays, electric cars and weapons.
A poll published on Monday by the newspaper Sermitsiaq showed that 63% of respondents were against the mining project, although only 29% were against mining in general.
The Siumut party leader, Erik Jensen, has said the mine would be “hugely important for Greenland’s economy”, helping diversify revenues. That is crucial if the island wants to gain full independence from Copenhagen someday.
Denmark, which is not opposed to Greenland’s independence, gives the island annual subsidies of around €526m (£450m), accounting for about a third of its budget.
Greenland plans to grow its economy by developing its fishing, mining and tourism sectors, as well as agriculture in the southern part of the island which is ice-free year-round.
“To harvest sustainably the living natural resources, like fish stocks, is going to be the most long-term [solution] for Greenland,” Minik Rosing, a geobiology professor at the University of Copenhagen, said. The island’s mineral potential “has only been investigated to some extent, but not in depth”.
For Cambridge University Arctic specialist Marc Jacobsen, keeping the option of large-scale mining open is the reason why Greenland has not signed the Paris climate accord. The treaty lets states decide their own measures to meet the common goal of keeping global warming under 2C.
“Signing the Paris agreement would not allow them to develop any big mining project,” Jacobsen said.
And yet the Arctic has been warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet since the 1990s, dramatically affecting the traditional way of life for Inuits, who make up more than 90% of Greenland’s population.
IA has vowed to sign the Paris agreement if it comes to power.
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