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Mineral Companies Eye Greenland's Untapped Wealth


The push to tap into the riches of the Arctic is sometimes compared with the great scramble for Africa by powers of the 19th century. In Greenland, the search is on for big oil and gas deposits. Driven by high prices, international companies are also looking for other riches, including diamonds and gold, and this is raising fresh dilemmas, as NPR's Philip Reeves reports in our continuing series on the future of the Arctic.

U: (Foreign language spoken)

PHILIP REEVES: This is how people get around on an island where there are no highways and where boats take an age to get anywhere. The handful of passengers on this Dash 7 are heading north up the coast of Greenland.


REEVES: We circle above Maniitsoq for a while. Then this...

U: Ladies and gentlemen (unintelligible)...

REEVES: Fog has rolled in from the ocean, swallowing up Maniitsoq's airstrip, so we can't land. We head back to where we came from, to Nuuk, Greenland's capital.


REEVES: Hermann Berthelsen drives a cab in Nuuk. He's actually from Maniitsoq, but moved out to find work as there was none at home. Berthelson hopes the smelter will be built.

M: (Through translator) I think Alcoa could be good if it happens - good for the village and for Greenland. People need jobs.

REEVES: Some other Greenlanders not from Maniitsoq take a different view. Aqqaluk Lynge of the Inuit Circumpolar Council worries about the social and environmental impact.

M: That community have decided they will have a good life for the next 100 years, but we are saying in fact it's not for you. You have to be very careful when you are giving away, and I think it's way out of touch when we are helping a multinational company like Alcoa gaining their feet in Greenland.

REEVES: Plenty of others are also gaining a foothold. Greenland is a dependency of Denmark, but it has self-rule and controls its mineral rights. Eager to diversify its fishing-based economy, it sold a bundle of exploration licenses in the last few years to international mineral companies that see Greenland as one of the world's last great frontiers of untapped wealth.

U: The Kvanefjeld project's an exciting opportunity...

REEVES: They're very keen to get at these riches, as their websites make clear.

U: The objective of the company is to find giant deposits of base metals, gold and diamonds.

REEVES: Chief executive Graeme Hossie says the conditions are right.

M: Greenland is a wonderful place because it is effectively, you know, European law, and it's a very, you know, politically stable country.

REEVES: It is remote, yet conditions on the ground are good too, says Hossie.

M: Plenty of water, which is key, good resource, good deposit. It's just cold in a new frontier but not too cold.

REEVES: The company plans to build a pipeline to send its product to Greenland's coast some 60 miles away to be shipped out worldwide. Hossie says one environmental issue did come up.

M: Because there is caribou, sort of reindeer hunting grounds for the local hunters, and they don't want them to be disrupted. So it was about putting ramps so that the caribou can cross the pipeline.

REEVES: Greenland's had a taste of industrialization before.


REEVES: This is a giant Soviet-style apartment block in the middle of Nuuk. It's crumbling, reeking and covered in graffiti. Although only mid-morning, an old woman staggers up, clutching a beer.

U: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: If there's now an industrial boom driven by mineral wealth, Greenland's again going to have to figure out where to find the workforce. Only 56,000 people - mostly Inuit - live in the entire island. Thousands will have to be brought in from outside. Greenland's Finance Minister, Maliina Abelsen, worries about this.

M: I want to make sure that this is done the right way and make sure that it's done in a sustainable way where you don't forget your culture, where we have respect about the people that live in this country. So I am concerned.

REEVES: Activist Aqqaluk Lynge believes Greenland needs to deal with this issue carefully.

M: We Greenlanders should sit here and say, yes, our country is so rich, so we have a choice which way to develop our country, but we cannot afford to be a minority in our own country. That would destroy the whole prospect of a free society.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.