Greenland: the emerging nation

The arctic ice is melting to reveal a very different Greenland. Daniel Howden finds a large island with a small population that is dreaming of independence

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The sled dogs are over the hill. Climbing out of Ilulissat past the wooden houses built to withstand the arctic cold, their howls form a sad chorus. Up on the plateau in clear view of the glacier, thousands of them prowl among disused sleds, chained to the tundra in packs waiting for a winter that no longer comes.

Each Spring the inhabitants of this northern outpost, more than a hundred miles inside the Arctic Circle, march through the darkness along this route to the edge of the ice fjord to greet the first light of the year. On that morning the sun appears for 20 minutes. It is one of the few remaining constants for Greenlanders in a world that has otherwise changed beyond comprehension in the past decade.

The Jakobshavn glacier still calves icebergs larger than supertankers into the vast Disko Bay but the ice sheet that once crept south each year to provide the dog-sledders with a frozen hunting ground is now an infrequent visitor. The glacier itself is accelerating into the sea at a rate by now visible to the naked eye.

A very different Greenland is emerging from underneath the thawing ice. The largest and most northerly island in the world is home to a tiny population of just 56,000. Most of its interior is weighed down by an immense ice cap, the glacial fingers of which provide the spectacle of Greenland's ice-fjords. During the winter the polar sea ice stretches south shutting off sea routes to the settlements that dot its jagged coastline.

This harsh landscape was where Aleqa Hammond grew up in a family of hunters. Now the foreign minister of Greenland's home rule government, she is also one of the chief advocates of this unique country's bid for independence. For centuries under the sway of Norway, it is now a self-governing province of Denmark that had been thought to be too weak economically to stand on its own but that, she claims, is about to change.

"The economic independence of Greenland is within range," she told participants at the Religion Science and the Environment symposium. Greenland depends for its survival on a £300m annual grant from Copenhagen but the vast mineral wealth believed to be lying beneath the seabed could dwarf that income if it could only be verified and exploited. Her administration is already in talks with nine multinationals who want oil exploration licenses. And Greenland's politicians talk like true believers in the coming bonanza. "In this bay at the next fjord you can touch the oil," says Ms Hammond.

Since the Norse leader Erik the Red was exiled to its southern shore and boasted of finding a "green land" in a bid to entice others to join him, outsiders have been arriving on this continental-sized island bringing their own misconceptions with them.

Minik Rosing is a geologist and a giant of a man born to parents from Greenland and Denmark who has a pretty good idea how the outside world thinks of the Inuit: "He's a little stubby guy outside an igloo with a big smile."

Under Danish patronage the Inuit were treated almost as backward children unready for the modern world. Greenlanders weren't even allowed kerosene lamps, says Rosing, "because they weren't trusted with this dangerous item." When the Second World War came the US moved into Greenland to mine cryolite and they sold locals the lamps they wanted. "Everyone [in Greenland] remembered the war as it got light inside. Elsewhere everyone remembered the war for the lights going out," jokes Rosing.

Today, outsiders come in search of the first victims of climate change. And amid the melting ice they find them. Aqqaluk Lynge, a renowned local poet and politician has become an effective spokesman for the Inuit, chronicling the immense impact of global warming on his homeland. "Our hunters report disappearing animals, new animals appearing, seas and ice changing, sea currents moving," he says. "In other words their world is ending."

Not everyone agrees this is a tragedy and modern Greenland's challenges are more complex than a lament for lost hunting grounds. In Ilulissat the fishermen are landing record catches of Halibut and an influx of cruise ships means the Hotel Arctic now boasts shining aluminium igloos with views of the bay.

There is a kind of frontier fever for minerals. The home rule government is sponsoring a "bounty hunting" competition, encouraging ordinary people to send in rock samples with the most valuable winning a prize. The entire flying capacity of Air Greenland is booked out for much of the arctic summer by diamond prospectors looking for the new Kimberley. US metals giant Alcoa has already signed a memorandum of understanding and a huge new smelter is planned that could bring jobs to more than 3,000 people, or one-tenth of Greenland's entire workforce.

In Qassiarsuk, once home to Erik the Red, they are farming lambs and growing potatoes and radishes. The local paper carries a headline on rows over food prices but the entire notion of Greenland potatoes would have been laughable five years ago.

Growth and change of this scale and rapidity has been followed by social strains. The capital Nuuk is home to fewer than 15,000 people but its problems would be familiar to any metropolis. Alcoholism, unemployment and suicide make for a depressing urban roll call. Rather than pristine ice floes and polar bear hunting it was this down-at-heel world in which Peter Lyberth grew up. Better known as "PandL", he's Greenland's leading hip-hop artist. A softly spoken, squat man in his 20s, standing outside a bleak block of flats, he tells a story familiar to rappers the world over. The son of a travelling fisherman and an alcoholic mother his Inuit lyrics are all about neglect.

"I write about my life," he says. "I write about my neglected childhood and about suicide. Everyone in Greenland knows someone or has someone in their family who has killed themselves."

A sudden opening out to the rest of the world has brought serious concerns that this bewildering pace of change could accelerate and that the tiny local population could be overrun by newcomers. "Greenlanders could very quickly be a minority in their own country," says Rosing.

The Inuit are not alone in feeling the effects of climate change both good and bad. The arctic paradox is that while consumption of fossil fuels has spurred global warming and progressively melted the ice sheets, it has also opened new areas to commercial shipping and enabled exploration for more oil and gas. This in turn has triggered a new scramble for the North Pole. The twin promises of mineral wealth and control over the fabled Northwest Passage has prompted the likes of Norway and Canada to study their claims to the Pole, while Russia has sent a submarine under the ice to plant a titanium flag on the sea bed at magnetic north. The US is not far behind and is contemplating ratifying the UN Law of the Seas Convention to enable itself to stake a claim to the North Pole, if only to further delay its rivals. The mounting tensions between Moscow and Washington have sparked fears of widespread militarisation of the arctic.

The toxic consequences of the last arms race are all too fresh to many Greenlanders. The US airbase in Thule in northwest Greenland was set up during the Second World War and became a strategic staging post for America's nuclear bombers during the Cold War. In 1968 one of the B-52s suffered an electrical fire and crashed near the site. At least one of the bombs was never recovered and is believed to be rusting somewhere under the sea ice. The radiation has had horrendous consequences for nearby Inuit. Ms Hammond remembers her visit there three years ago. She went polar bear hunting for five weeks with men from an area near the base and says they were incredible hunters. "I said to one of them 'your son must be a great hunter soon'. But he had no son. None of them have children."

Denmark itself is spending millions on studying the undersea mountain range known as the Lomonosov Ridge and battling Canada for ownership of the remote rock outcrop of Hans Island in a bid to further its claims.

However, the Danes continue to insist that independence is a matter for the Greenlanders to decide and that Copenhagen will not stand in their way.

Svend Auken, a former environment minister and leader of Denmark's Social Democrats is unequivocal, saying there is overwhelming support for an independent Greenland. "It would not even take a vote in the Danish parliament," he insists. And as for the Danes' claim to the arctic: "Once they become independent that's their North Pole."

Not everyone is convinced that it will work that way. Rosing, famous for the discovery of the world's earliest known traces of life at Isua knows as much as anyone about what lies beneath the surface of Greenland. "We're not the new Saudi [Arabia]," he jokes. "We have no palm trees."

He points out that the vast oil reserves in the Middle East were easy to get to which is why they were exploited ahead of Canada's tar sands or similar deposits in Venezuela. He says if anything Greenland is the "new Norway".

But even that could have unforeseen consequences. "As soon as we find oil that will end independence," he predicts. "Everyone thinks that oil will buy us independence but how would we absorb all of this wealth?

"As everyone gets more desperate for that commodity you don't want to be a very small, very independent country, very far from anywhere else. Independence based on oil is probably not a good idea."

Additional reporting by Eirene Vourloumis

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