Greenland, the world’s biggest island could become the first independent country of indigenous people in modern times, if the current search for oil in its territorial waters bears fruit.
Although the Scottish company Cairn Energy did not find oil during drilling in Baffin Bay off the west coast of Greenland in late 2011, it is thought very likely that drilling off the north eastern coast this year will strike oil.
In a self-governing agreement with Denmark in 2009, the Greenlanders were recognized as a distinct people with the right to self-determination and given greater control over potential oil finds.
In practice the agreement can serve as a road map to independence if /when the 57,000 Greenlanders are self-sufficient but for now they are dependent on grants from the state budget of Denmark.
Greenland has been part of the Danish Kingdom for three hundred years but was granted limited sovereignty when home rule was established in 1979.
Greenland’s Prime Minister, Kuupik Kleist says his government will seek independence when the economic situation allows. “We claim our right to economic development," Mr Kleist told the British newspaper The Independent. "And we claim our right to be independent from former colonial powers."
It is believed that the northern part of Greenland is rich in gas and oil. Global warming is increasing the potential of oil drilling and mining for minerals such as diamond and gold. The geopolitical importance of Greenland will also increase when new shipping lanes connecting Europe, America and Asia open after the Arctic ice cap recedes.
International environmental organizations have raised concerns about oil drilling in Greenland. Their protests have been fuelled by the environmental damage done by oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Prime Minister says that Greenland will do its utmost to protect the environment. “Requirements for safeguarding the environment and the sustainability of local communities have to be met,” Mr. Kleist said in his New Year message. “The exercise of highest standards of corporate social responsibility is fundamental to sustainable development.”
Paradoxically, while climate change may trigger an oil boom and the independence of Greenland, it is threatening the traditional livelihoods of the Greenlanders. No one knows what consequences of the melting of even a fraction of the Greenland glacier would mean for the environment. The ice cap that covers most of Greenland is estimated to contain about one tenth of the world’s fresh water.
The photographer and film director Jenny E. Ross has documented the changing lifestyle and environment of the Greenlanders in the village of Siorapaluk, which is believed to be the northernmost settlement on Earth.
“The sea remains unfrozen along the coast in late fall, at a time of year when it should be covered with ice,” Ross writes. “Glaciers are melting and shedding huge quantities of ice and melt water into the ocean. The animals inhabiting the land and water are threatened by rising temperatures and loss of sea ice. Greenlanders who have survived for generations by hunting are now losing their prey and their traditional way of life.”
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