In Greenland, Farmers Torn Over Mining for Minerals

QASSIARSUK, Greenland -- Carl and Ellen Frederiksen gazed anxiously at a spot on the snow-flecked mountain behind their village. The sheepdogs had been running back and forth, and they feared a lamb was trapped on one of the slopes.

"This winter has been the toughest we've seen in 30 years," Carl Frederiksen, a farmer, said. He does not know how many of his 1,009 lambs born this year will come down from the mountain. So every lamb counts.

Sheep farming is among the main activities, along with fishing and skinning seals, in Greenland's emptiest municipality, Kujalleq, with its population of 7,151 spread over more than 12,000 square miles. But that may soon change, as the area sits atop extraordinary mineral resources: gold, nickel and zinc, as well as the rare-earth elements that are used in smartphones, electric cars, precision-guided missiles and televisions. Kuannersuit, a mountain in the center of Kujalleq, is said to hide the second-largest rare-earth mineral deposit in the world.

The valuable cache is presenting a quandary for the farmers here. People in Kujalleq and other parts of southern Greenland are torn between the prospect of becoming a powerful mining region or of remaining a pristine wonderland of nature and farms. Some, however, say it can be both.

Mining fever took hold of Greenland in 2013, after the government decided to relax regulations and lift a ban on uranium extraction.

"Greenland is pro-exploration and pro-mining now, both across the board in government and also within the population," said Julie Hollis, head of geology at the Ministry of Mineral Resources. The area has been vastly underexplored, she added, because of the higher operating costs of mining in the Arctic.

But since 2013, the ministry has reviewed hundreds of mining license requests and is now moving forward with five of them, aiming to have up to 10 mines operating by 2018 and seeking new deposits.

For the 57,000 people who live scattered across a territory about three times the size of Texas, with no roads to connect most settlements and snow more than half the year, mining is one of few economic opportunities. A former Danish colony, Greenland has had home rule since a 2009 referendum, and it remains heavily dependent on a $600 million annual subsidy from Denmark.

For years, the population has been eager to free itself from its former overseer, and politicians offer perennial promises of economic independence. The mining question is now tied to this aim.

But the mines are to be located at the center of the Kujalleq region, and many of the people who live there fear they will disrupt a farming and fishing culture that dates back centuries. (The Vikings, led by Erik the Red, settled there in the 10th century.)

To protect this farming tradition, the local municipality and Greenland's government are completing an application for the region to be made a UNESCO World Heritage site (it has been on a tentative list for a decade).

"To be added to the list, you need to prove there is an outstanding universal value to your cultural landscape," said Petya Totcharova, UNESCO's World Heritage chief for Europe.

Birger Kristoffersen, the architect in charge of Kujalleq's application, said getting on the list was crucial: "It gives us a quality stamp that will drive tourists to the region."

But he also believes the mines can happen in parallel. "We have clearly outlined the World Heritage areas, and these will stay no-go zones for mining," he said.

Over the years, the size of the protected area has been reduced to allow for mining. "It's all about compromise," Kristoffersen said. "We need to keep old traditions going, but that doesn't mean we have to reject potential developments."

Only one mine in Greenland is currently being constructed. Reaching it requires a four-hour boat ride from Nuuk, the capital, along a barren coast and glaciers, to the Aappaluttoq deposit, where miners drill for pink sapphires and rubies.

Employing a crew of 30, the mine should be operational by fall. "It's a small project but an important one because we are the first," said Jens B. Frederiksen, executive vice president of True North Gems Greenland, a Canadian-owned mining company. "We want to be pioneers and show how mining can be done in a sustainable way in favor of the locals."

Jens Frederiksen pointed out that the mine employs only locals and that it is creating opportunities for the nearby village of Qeqertarsuatsiaat, where fishermen feed the workers with their daily catch and locals are being trained in gem cutting.

Jens Frederiksen, who was Greenland's vice prime minister from 2009 to 2013, left politics and went into mining after the government changed. (Certain surnames are common here, though those who share one may not be directly related.)

"They all want independence, but how can we be independent if we don't have the money?" he said.

In the south, Greenland Minerals and Energy and Tanbreez, two Australian-owned companies, have put forward the two largest proposals of the 24 submitted for active exploration licenses in the municipality. (Greenland Minerals and Energy already has a partnership with the Chinese company NFC for a joint venture once a license is approved.)

Tanbreez has been waiting three and a half years for approval of its exploitation license for rare-earth elements.

"Processes are extremely slow because politics are getting involved," said Bolette Nielsen, a mining consultant who has worked for the project. Tanbreez officials said they would provide 500 jobs, but the minerals will only be extracted, and not processed, locally.

The Greenland Minerals and Energy project is more contentious because it plans to extract uranium along with rare-earth elements and to create a chemical processing plant on site. Gerhard Schmidt, a German engineer in radioactive waste management, said that this would be the only open-pit uranium mine in the Arctic and that its location on top of a mountain makes it more risky, as dust and water used in the mining could trickle down the slopes and disseminate.

"This would end our picture-perfect environment," said Ellen Frederiksen, the sheep farmer in Qassiarsuk.

On a July morning, six members of the Frederiksen clan donned snowsuits and took a boat toward Qaqortoq, the municipality's largest town, joining others from across the region for the farmers' annual meeting.

It is a close-knit community, but mining has been dividing it: 30 of the 50 farming families have written an open letter to the government, parliament and local institutions to express their disapproval and fears. Those who support the mining say the region needs some form of development.

Jorgen Waever Johansen, the regional mayor, opened the meeting by congratulating the farmers for how well they handled the rough winter. Quickly, though, he moved on to address the UNESCO application as well as the opportunities mining would offer.

"Without this, how will we create the jobs and tax money that this country so desperately needs?" he asked.

The meeting was then turned over to the farmers to discuss business: shipping dates for meat, the ordering of grain and the surge in wild polar bear attacks on the sheep.

"No one dares put up their hand to bring up the mines because they know it'll cause mayhem," Agathe Devisme, a farmer, said. If Greenland Minerals and Energy's uranium mining project moves forward, she is one of the farmers who will be forced to abandon her land, where she also runs a bed-and-breakfast.

"Here in Greenland, no one owns the land," she said. She means that literally: Land in Greenland is communally owned. "So my husband and I found out they had granted GME an exploration license on our farmland, without our permission."

In a feasibility plan, Lake Taseq, which sits at the center of the grazing area for seven farms, is to be used for uranium mineral tailings. "When I think of the mine, all I see is gray, gray dust covering my life, my region and everything in sight," Devisme said.

But Nielsen, the mining consultant, said it was unlikely that the company would be able to begin the exploration phase within a decade.

"With uranium, there are a million more authorizations and processes to go through, and Denmark will have to give permission," she said, pointing out Denmark's opposition to nuclear energy.

The meeting came to an end as the farmers elected a new representative for the year to come. Evening fog started to cover the icebergs and roofs in the Qaqortoq harbor. The prospect of mining still loomed, but, at the moment, there were more immediate worries: ferocious polar bears, lost lambs and the prospect of another rough winter.