Rare earths mining feud at heart of Greenland's snap elections

The economic benefits of mining for rare earths have divided opinions in Greenland and led to a snap election.
The economic benefits of mining for rare earths have divided opinions in Greenland and led to a snap election. De Agostini via Getty Images - DEA / M. SANTINI

The world is watching as Greenland goes to the polls Tuesday for snap elections that will determine the future of a controversial project to mine rare earths.


The Arctic island is home to one of the largest deposits of rare earths – metals that are used in everyday items such as computers, smartphones, rechargeable batteries, fluorescent lighting and magnets.

It is also at the frontline of climate change, with its colossal ice sheet now melting at the fastest rate since records began. 

That melt has accelerated the global race to covet Greenland’s natural resources – most notably rare earths because the world is consuming them at a voracious rate, and supply is limited.

China – the world’s biggest producer of rare earths – has taken a keen interest in Greenland. It is heavily involved in developing the proposed mine, known as Kvanefjeld. 

Its partner, Australian company Greenland Minerals, has spent years – and millions of euros in feasibility studies – seeking approval from authorities.

Meanwhile the US and Europe have been working to ensure China does not get exclusive access to the rare earths.

Collapsed government

The Kvanefjeld project, which is also intended to mine uranium, is so divisive that Greenland’s coalition government collapsed in February amid disagreements over its future.

The ensuing political debate is centred on the economic needs of the autonomous Danish territory – which depends heavily on subsidies from Copenhagen – versus the need to protect its fragile environment.

“If we don’t attract capital and create new jobs, I’m not sure what the future looks like for our country,” Jess Berthelsen, head of Greenland’s biggest labour union SIK, told Reuters.

Some 60,000 people live in Greenland, which is 80 percent covered by an ice sheet that has long helped to stabilise the global climate.


While its elections do not usually attract international attention, Tuesday’s legislative vote is being followed closely in Beijing, Washington, Brussels and beyond.  

Greenland’s largest and most dominant political party, Siumut, supports the mine project – saying its revenue could help Greenland gain full independence. But the party is behind in the polls.

The opposition left-green party Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA) opposed any uranium mining. It argues that the open-pit mine would damage a pristine and fragile ecosystem.

"We have to say no to the mine and allow ourselves to develop our country our own way," IA member of parliament Mariane Paviasen told AFP.

"In Greenland we have clean air and unspoiled nature. We live in harmony with nature and we aren't going to pollute it."

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning