Greenland to World: "Keep Out!"

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Uriel Sinai / Getty

Melted water runs over a glacier in Greenland.

Greenlanders get asked some fairly predictable questions when they're out and about in the world. They get asked, for instance, if it's winter all year long in Greenland. (No.) They get asked if they live in igloos. (No.) And they get asked if it's true that Iceland is really green, and Greenland is really ice. (Sort of. For now.)

Though Greenland lives large in the world's imagination, the world hasn't always put much effort into imagining what life is like for Greenland's 56,000 residents. But as the increasingly alarming news of its melting 1.8 million square kilometer (695,000 square mile) ice cap has trickled south and the race for polar resources has officially started, the international community is paying more attention to its largest island. By the end of this summer, some 3,400 scientists from 60 countries were working on the landmass. Both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had dropped by to see the melting glaciers for themselves. And singer Björk dedicated a song to Greenland (and the Faroe Islands) — "Declare Independence" — on her latest album.

Why? Because while people may be learning more about Greenland through global warming's effects on its fragile environment, what's less well known is that a grassroots movement for greater self-rule has been brewing in the Danish territory for the last 30 years. First colonized in 1721 when a Norwegian Danish priest came to what is now the capital city of Nuuk, Greenland remains part of the Danish kingdom. In 1979, its predominantly Inuit population fought for management of domestic affairs, which it was granted, but Copenhagen still handles its foreign relations and supports the island with a whopping $600 million yearly subsidy. Diplomatic relations between territory and crown are very cordial — indeed, some Greenlanders consider themselves lucky to have been colonized by Denmark and not the United States or Canada — but some also feel that the same well-intentioned Danish money that keeps the island on its feet also keeps it under Denmark's thumb. A small faction of politically minded Greenlanders has been looking for a way out for decades.

In those years, environmental and social change have hit Greenland hard and fast. In Nuuk, drying musk ox hides hang over the balconies of the monolithic blocks of public housing that absorb exiles from the quickly emptying outlying villages stationed around the island's rocky fringe. The island's transition to a cash economy has rendered subsistence hunting a less and less viable way to live, and the effects of climate change on sea ice has made hunting seasons shorter and less predictable. Poverty, alcoholism and high suicide rates haunt the population. Alfred Jakobsen, deputy minister of the environment in the Home Rule government, says the combination of these struggles and the ballooning demand for western goods won't offer a sustainable economic future. "It's heartbreaking to see that there is not much local entrepreneurship creating things for export," Jakobsen says. "In a way, you feel happy if you can get this shirt, or these pants, or these shoes. But it's not healthy for the national economy to see that more import stores are opening. The balance of import and export will be very, very skewed."

And, so, long before Russia planted a metal flag in the sea floor beneath the North Pole last month, Greenland had been eyeing its own potential reserves of oil and gas surrounding the island. Shrimp processing is the biggest contributor to the territory's GDP today, but big oil could offer a much shorter path to self-reliance. In September, Exxon Mobil, Chevron and Denmark's Dong Energy joined the ranks of those who have been looking for oil off Greenland's west coast, and last month the U.S. Geological Survey released an estimate that an area off Greenland's northeast coast could yield the equivalent of 31.4 billion barrels of oil, gas and gas liquids. If those barrels materialize, it would make northeast Greenland the 19th largest oil and gas reserve out of 500 in the world. No one has struck black gold in Greenland's waters yet, but foreign investment is gaining momentum.

What happens when they find it is another matter. Right now, Greenland and Denmark have 50-50 rights to profits from Greenland's natural resources. Securing full rights to administer the oil, gas and minerals harvested from their land and water has been a recurring theme among Greenlanders who want greater sovereignty, but talks about whether the territory will take over sole rights are currently stalled. And in August Denmark sent a crew of some 40 scientists on a technically unprecedented mission to explore whether a ridge beneath the North Pole was geologically linked to their territory. (If it is — if the ridge is an extension of their continental shelf and, therefore, an extension of the country's coastline — it could mean legal rights to a greater chunk of the sea for Denmark.) "I'm sure that the foreseeable easier access to the North Pole and potential oil in those areas is a tremendous focus of the Danish politicians," says Jakobsen. He says the talks, part of a commission's report that's due out about increasing Greenland's autonomy, are held up because Danish and Greenlandic politicians "can't agree" on who's going to get what from this potential oil and gas.

But harvesting whatever Greenland's icy waters may yield — not to mention the resources under the polar cap — is a long way off. The sea ice is still too thick in most places to access reserves that may or may not exist, and the technology to drill in these inhospitable conditions is not there yet. "If anybody has reached anything, we haven't heard about it," says Mr. Steen Ryd Larsen, who heads the department in charge of Greenland in the Danish Prime Minister's office. "And if somebody reaches the resources, it would be another decade before it generates income. It's not just around the corner."

For some independence-minded Greenlanders, that's just fine. The thought of big nations finding yet another vested interest in their landscape isn't universally thrilling in Greenland, which has been a strategic military outpost for the U.S. and Denmark since the Cold War. Inuit hunters were displaced when the American military set up camp at the Thule Air Base on the island's northwest shore in the 1950s, and Inuit hunters were the first to be exposed when a B-52 carrying hydrogen bombs crashed near the base in 1968. "We are fragile, both in terms of the climate crisis and because of the military buildup in the Arctic," says Aqqaluk Lynge, president of Inuit Circumpolar Conference Greenland. Things don't always work out for small, oil-rich countries with indigenous populations, he says. "Every night I pray they don't find oil and gas in Greenland."

Still, having the world's ear isn't all bad news. Earlier this month, Lynge saw the United Nations adopt the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, an effort over 20 years in the making for him. And Jakobsen says the process of negotiating with Denmark has made Greenland savvier about their place in the international community. "[People] know more than they knew before. ... They are more ready for a change," he says. "They are waiting for someone to pop up and say, 'Yes, this is the way we should go. Follow me.'"