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Sermeq Kujalleq, one of the fastest moving glaciers on Earth (at 19 metres/day), produces an endless stream of icebergs.

An Arctic Neighbour at the crossroad?

November/December 2011 by Yvan Pouliot

The airplane prepared for landing in full view of the ice cap, the rocky peaks, glaciers and icebergs. A completely different world appears: the biggest island (Can also be considered as the second biggest island after Australia. The latter is however often considered as an island-continent)  and the northernmost country on Earth. Exiting from the plane the fresh alpine air confirms it. The surroundings of rocky mountains, snow and ice look like the Himalayas at 5,000 metres of altitude, but the airport is not very high above sea level. The latitude makes the difference here, just below the Arctic circle. On this spring day, my mind was loaded with many questions.

Who are the people living here? Their language? What are they doing? How do they live their northern lives? What is different here from the northern part of my country, Canada? As an environmental biologist, I was also greatly interested in their environmental issues and how they manage their wastes. How are they affected by global warming?

My journey to Greenland started with the intent of answering these questions as much as possible. I went aboard the Sarfaq Ittuk, the ferry transporting people from village to village, sailing North from Nuuk to Ilulissat, and then South to Qaqortoq. In two weeks, I travelled to a dozen villages, visiting Viking ruins, old European settlements, glaciers and ice fjords, sheep farms, museums and met with many interesting people.

This region of southwest Greenland offers a great diversity of villages, human life and landscape, and thanks to the warm Gulf stream current, the sea coast of this region is free of ice all year round, with the exception of icebergs, of course.

Located in the middle of this region, Nuuk the capital, is a modern city of 37,000. Nuuk’s buildings and houses are all constructed directly on the bedrock.

In total Greenland is home to nearly 60,000 people spread across 50 villages located in a thin corridor of ice-free land along the coast. About 85 percent of its territory is covered by an icecap close to 3 km thick in some areas. The weight of this ice is so heavy that the ground underneath is pushed down in a concave shape where the low point lies below sea level.

Greenland yesterday

My first question was answered in Sisimiut, a picturesque village located 300 kilometres north of Nuuk. There, the Katersugaasivik Museum housed precious archaeological exhibits (discoveries related to Greenland’s first inhabitants) in old colonial buildings. Indications are that this territory has been inhabited for almost 4,000 years by different waves of Palo Eskimos called Saqqaqkulturi, then the Tuniit siulliit and then the Tuniit kingulliit. The Norse (Vikings), named Qallunaatsiaat by the Inuit, arrived more than 1,000 years ago. They vanished (as known) around 500 years ago apparently due to the cooling of the climate known as the little Ice Age.

The inhabitants of Greenland today are the descendants of the two last waves of people: the Inuit arriving from northern Canada, close to 1,000 years ago, and the European people, sailing 500 years ago to Greenland for fishing, walrus and whale hunting, explorations, and later on for evangelization and colonization.

Spoken languages are Greenlandic locally called, Kalaallissut, a dialect of Inuktitut. The second language is Danish and English is also spoken as the third language.

Eskimo archaeological sites are scattered all along the coasts. The Norse occupied the southwestern part between year 985 (Eric the Red sailed to Greenland in 982 and came back with 35 ships from Iceland in 985, but only 14 made it) and 1500 approximately. They settled in flat grassy plains where they could practice agriculture and sheep farming. Some 300 farms are estimated to have existed at that time and the Norse population probably never exceeded 5,000. Several ruins are still visible today. An astonishing one is the stone church built some 700 years ago at Hvalsey, which is along a fjord where the cousin of Eric the Red had settled. The church was the centre of a dwelling complex linking the development of Christianity in the region as in many places on Earth at that time.

Greenland today

Greenland had been a Danish colony until 1953 and is now an independent territory of this country. Since a referendum in 2008 and a special law in 2009, the autonomy of Greenland has been strengthened. It is inhabited by Kalaallit (Inuit) and Scandinavians, mainly Danish. Kalaallit are connected to the land and traditions and the Danish to Europe and modern economy.

Kalaallit and Danes often intermarried and still do, creating a unique Greenlandic cultural heritage. One example of this heritage is the traditional costume of the Kalaallit, which display material and design from both cultures. With coloured linen and beads brought from Europe, Kalaallit have designed a gorgeous costume incorporating seal fur and skin, which they wear at every official ceremony such as confirmation.

Even if Greenland is geographically close and geologically bonded to North America, it is culturally and economically connected to Europe. This is the first surprise for any Canadian travelling here. We have to go to Iceland or to Denmark to get to Greenland, a somewhat lengthy but pretty detour. A direct flight from Eastern Canada would take less than three hours to go to Nuuk or to Kangerlussuaq while the best itinerary I found took 22 hours, through Montreal-Boston-Reykjavik-Nuuk.

All visited villages were clean, surprisingly clean. No paper, debris or garbage was on the ground. Colours used for houses are the same in every village: Red, Blue, Yellow and some Green. This is one reason why Greenland villages are so typical and recognizable.

People seem generally well educated and proud of their environment, and of their fitness. Hiking, biking and jogging are regular activities here.

Tourism is well organized in many villages. Bed & Breakfast, hotels of different classes and even youth hostels are available and costs are similar to what we find in Canada.

Fishing has been the main industry for a long time but the depletion of the sea resource has reduced the activity here like elsewhere. Containers stacked on the wharf are part of every village scenery.

Every village has an incinerator to burn domestic wastes, so dumpsites are reduced to metal and ashes. Wastewater however, is ejected directly to the sea, but does not seem to create significant impacts considering the small population of villages and the long distance between them.

It was somewhat surprising to learn that global warming does not seem to be a big issue here in this country of ice. In fact, the permafrost can thaw and the stability of buildings will not be affected since they are constructed directly on the bedrock. The same holds true for roads and other civic infrastructure. All are constructed in a way so as not to be affected by the freeze and thaw.

Potable water resources and sewage pipes all lie above ground and are insulated. When people are asked if global warming is a concern in Greenland, they politely answer, “yes,” and mention examples such as the thinner sea ice in some areas where people used to fish during winter, which render the activity more dangerous now. Years ago, it was possible to cross Disco Bay in winter, the ice was solid enough, but not anymore. And as the conversations continue, the real concerns arise: jobs, more independence from Denmark, upcoming huge oil or mining projects, threat of economic and cultural invasion, and so on.

A mining project near the village of Narsaq at the southern tip is a good example of the challenging issues that are facing Greenlanders today. The company Greenland Minerals and Energy, a subsidiary of an Australian mining company, acquired a licence to explore the Kvanefjed project area, which contains rare earth, zinc and uranium. The feasibility and impact assessment studies are underway and if positive, the mine construction is planned for 2013 for completion in 2015.

The construction phase will require a taskforce of 2,000 employees, and 600 afterward for regular operation. With a total population of 1,600 people in Narsaq, and of around 7,000 total in South Greenland, the region would not be able to supply the specialized manpower required for such a venture. Most of the manpower will have to be brought from abroad.

From where? Where would they lodge? Are the politicians going to sell the land for nothing? Will the surrounding villages and landscape be impacted? Will this big project bring social problems? Are the food, language and way of living going to disappear? The land will not be as peaceful as it is now. What will the benefits be? These are questions and comments I have been hearing from people I have encountered.

During my stay, the mining company held an information session in Qaqortoq to introduce the project to the population, to answer questions and address concerns. This session comprised several booths on the mining processes, a display of specialized equipment, simulated images of the landscape before and after the project, conferences, information on archaeology, games outside for children and an open food buffet all weekend long. A soccer game between Qaqortoq and Narsaq teams was even organized. Mining companies well know that social acceptability is paramount in the implementation of new projects and such public relations events are necessary, even if they are costly.

Greenland tomorrow

Kvanefjed is one project among several ones currently in progress in Greenland. This situation is not so surprising considering that Greenland abounds in resources such as oil, gold, rare earth, zinc, iron and uranium, and that the world demand for these resources is high, especially in China.

Greenland is known for its dramatic natural features such as the glaciers, pushed by the icecap, calving icebergs in ice-field fjords where they are first born to start their long journey along the coast. It is a pristine place where people seem to live in harmony with their environment, a real model for other northern countries I would risk to say. This is most evident in observation of their genuine respect for the environment, their pride in speaking their language and sharing knowledge of their customs with visitors.

However, being a tiny population in a huge territory makes them vulnerable. Sourcing enough workers from abroad to fill the jobs created by multinational companies for large scale exploitations of natural resources will bring new rules and challenges and change the present equilibrium, no doubt.

The social debate currently taking place is intense and highly important for the people and politicians. And the outcome will shape the Greenland of tomorrow. For many, these projects are great opportunities to develop a new economy and to create jobs highly needed since the downturn of the fishing industry. It is the occasion to discuss many issues: culture, autonomy, economy, politics and environment. The challenge is to find a way to implement these projects while protecting the culture and the environment. As we know, oil and mineral exploitations can be very polluting if not properly managed and regulated. Will Greenland be able to stay green?