Greenland’s Rare-Earth Election

A vote last month answered an important question about the world’s largest island.

Brattahlid on the fjord in Greenland
Erik the Red's settlement, Brattahlid, is located in the present-day city of Qassiarsuk. (Education Images / Universal Images Group / Getty)

Tunulliarfik Fjord has always played an outsize role in global history. One thousand years ago, the Viking Erik the Red settled there, the last outpost in the Norse expansion into North America. When the United States established a protectorate over Greenland during World War II, it built one of its first airports in what is now Narsarsuaq, a large town on the fjord. And now Tunulliarfik is the site of a mining project that has overturned politics on Greenland.

Since 1979, the ruling Siumut party has dominated Greenland’s elections; in all those years it has lost power only once, in 2009, after the island reformed its government and loosened ties with Denmark, which has ruled it for three centuries. Earlier this month, the democratic-socialist Inuit Ataqatigiit party (IA), Greenlandic for “Community for the People, won an election with more than a third of the vote, after centering its campaign on a promise to cancel the controversial mining project.

Greenland, the world’s largest island, is populated by about 56,000 people, and its election is, in some ways, an extremely local story. The mining project is called Kvanefjeld, and it would excavate thorium, uranium, and rare-earth elements. Kvanefjeld is less than four miles from Narsaq, one of the larger cities in South Greenland and a local tourism center. (It also has an excellent brewery.)

“There is no way for me to have the mine, because it’s only six kilometers from our town,” Mariane Paviasen, 56, a local activist who ran for Parliament under IA, told me in an interview before the election.

But the election touches on some of the biggest issues in global politics: climate change, mineral economics, and indigenous sovereignty. Rare earths are used to make finely tuned magnets that are essential to modern electronics, including electric vehicles and wind turbines. There is some irony here: Greenland, whose ice sheet is a visual metaphor for the inevitability of climate change, will be mined to power the only technology that can stop it. But the actual interest here is not so overdetermined—like all true climate stories, it draws together questions of money, land, power, and growth. IA’s answer to those questions is not to oppose all extraction, but it has taken a less friendly stance toward some proposed projects. It is particularly opposed to mining that could create radioactive waste.

Greenland has some of the world’s richest untapped mineral seams. Some rocks near the Kvanefjeld site are among the oldest on Earth, at more than 1 billion years old; they have seen 7 percent of the life span of the universe. Kvanefjeld has been under consideration as a mining site, in one light or another, since 2007, if not earlier.

Even if climate change didn’t exist, the lode would be of great importance. Rare earths are as important to mobile phones and laptops as they are to renewable energy: Any modern electronic device includes a trace amount of rare earths.

In the past, Greenland’s primary geopolitical gift was its location: The Allies seized it during World War II in part because it provided a useful base. The rising worth of these minerals has shifted Greenland’s geopolitical importance back to its potential as a font of resources. (The Vikings remained in Greenland, a Danish archaeologist once told me, partially to harvest its walrus ivory.) In recent years, China has tried to extend its Belt and Road foreign-aid program to Greenland and expressed interest in its mineral supply. Two years ago, the United States parried the Belt and Road attempt, forcefully asserting that it would partner with Denmark to fund three airports that China had proposed. The U.S. has also reopened a permanent consulate in Nuuk, Greenland’s capital. (Previously, the U.S. ambassador to Denmark had also served as its envoy to Greenland. Greenland has “home rule,” retaining authority over domestic policy, but Denmark, of which it remains a nominal part, sets its foreign policy.)

The plans for Kvanefjeld had long been paused, according to Zane Cooper, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania who studies how communities respond to mineral extraction. Then, during the pandemic, the plans seemed to accelerate. Greenland Minerals Ltd., an Australian-headquartered but Chinese-backed company, began pressing its plans forward, and the ruling Siumut party complied. The local population had worries, particularly about uranium, which is often found next to thorium, itself a sign of rare earths. A rushed series of public meetings in February gave residents little warning about how rumored uranium dust would affect their farms and settlements. When someone called in a bomb threat to a meeting that Siumut officials were due to attend, they canceled their appearance. Another party, the Democrats, announced it would leave the governing coalition, depriving Siumut of its majority and precipitating snap elections.

The election, on April 6, saw a major victory for IA. It won overwhelmingly in southern Greenland.

IA does not oppose most mining; what it opposes is uranium mining. Another mine, about 30 miles from Narsaq, meets its approval, and the party supports developing mineral extraction as part of a broader strategy. “I think it will work better for us to have our own mining company in Greenland,” Paviasen said. She also supports more economic diversification, embracing a larger role for tourism and local agriculture. Most vegetables in Greenland are imported from Denmark.

Greenland’s blessing and curse is the large block grant, equivalent to more than $500 million, that it receives every year from the Danish government. It makes up about half of Greenland’s annual budget. Greenland has promised to deposit about a third of the revenue from its mineral wealth into a sovereign-wealth fund modeled off the Norwegian oil fund, which could help it replace the Danish block grant.

If IA does find a way to instill some measure of economic autarky in Greenland, then it would be the world’s first completely independent indigenous country, Cooper said. Onlookers expect that Greenland would seek independence from Denmark faster under the separatist IA party than the more moderate Siumut. But that remains a ways off: First, IA must figure out how, and whether, it can cancel the mine in a fjord. Greenland Minerals has vowed to fight the decision in court and in international trade tribunals. (Múte Egede, the new IA prime minister, did not respond to a request for comment.) It may seem like a narrow question, but it could have sweeping implications for the island’s 56,000 inhabitants—and for how the world’s largest powers comport themselves with regard to the world’s largest island.