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Opposition Wins Elections In Greenland, Casting Doubt On Future Of Rare-Earth Mine

Voters stand in line to cast ballots Tuesday for Greenland's parliamentary elections at a polling station in the capital.
Emil Helms
Ritzau Scanpix/AFP via Getty Images
Voters stand in line to cast ballots Tuesday for Greenland's parliamentary elections at a polling station in the capital.

Voters in Greenland have given an opposition party its first-ever chance to form a government after a campaign that sought to define the limits of development on the Arctic island.

The Inuit Ataqatigiit party won 37% of the vote, compared with 29% for the ruling social-democratic Siumut party, according to official results reported by Reuters. The vote totals should allow Inuit Ataqatigiit to grab 12 seats in the 31-member unicameral legislature, known as the Inatsisartut, meaning it will likely need to form a coalition with support from one of the smaller parties.

At the center of Tuesday's election was the fate of a rare-earth and uranium mining project in the country's south that has pitted those favoring more aggressive development against others who want more safeguards to protect the island's fragile Arctic environment.

Inuit Ataqatigiit, or "Community of the People," had campaigned against the Kvanefjeld project, which was granted preliminary approval under Prime Minister Kim Kielsen's Siumut party government.

Greenland, about three times the size of Texas, is the world's largest noncontinental island with a population of about 56,000. In 1979, it became self-governing within the Kingdom of Denmark, which maintains control over the island's foreign, monetary and defense policies.

In recent years, its vast untapped mineral resources have attracted the attention of international companies hoping to tap into the growing market for rare-earth elements — a group of 17 similar metals often found in the same deposit. They are used as components in everything from smartphones to electric cars and weapons. Those deposits have become more accessible in recent years due to glacial melting caused by climate change.

Among other rare-earth metals, the Kvanefjeld project aims to tap into deposits of neodymium, an element used to create miniature permanent magnets that have become vital to a number of high-tech industries. The Australian company that runs the mine also wants to extract uranium. The project's largest investor is a Chinese company.

Following Tuesday's election results, Inuit Ataqatigiit leader Mute Egede was asked by broadcaster DR about the fate of Kvanefjeld.

"The people have spoken," Egede said. "It won't happen."

Like many Greenlanders, Inuit Ataqatigiit does not oppose mining but also has a strong environmental focus. Most of the island's residents say they want eventual independence from Denmark. Some see the potential from exploiting Greenland's rich ore deposits as the key to creating economic clout to go it alone.

"It's not that Greenlanders don't want mining, but they don't want dirty mining," Mikaa Mered, a lecturer on Arctic affairs at HEC business school in Paris, was quoted by Reuters as saying.

"Greenlanders are sending a strong message that for them it's not worth sacrificing the environment to achieve independence and economic development," he said.

In 2019, then-President Donald Trump offered to buy Greenland from Denmark, comparing such a purchase to "a large real estate deal."

However, the idea was rebuffed both in Greenland and in the Danish capital, Copenhagen.

Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said emphatically that "Greenland is not for sale."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.