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Greenland’s Rare-Earth Election

“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.

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