Resources, Nationalism and Indigenous Rights: Learning in Greenland

By Professor Klaus Dodds, Department of Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London

At about 7am, close to the old heart of Nuuk (known in the past by its Danish name Godthab), I gathered with a colleague Professor Mark Nuttall who holds joint appointments at the University of Alberta and University of Greenland. We had arrived at the opening part of a public celebration (National Day) of Greenland’s growing sense of autonomy and national pride. The public area was already decked out with Greenland’s distinctive flag and the public lectern was adorned in those white and red colours.

At exactly 7:30am, a brass band came down the hill followed by hundreds of people waiting to listen to the city’s mayor and singing by the Nuuk choir. With Mark close by, he kindly translated into English the Danish and Greenlandic elements of the ceremony. It was an impressive spectacle and a very powerful reminder of how this national day (invented in 2009) is contributing to what used to be called by historians the ‘invention of tradition’.



To emphasize the creative and performance-based nature of nationalism is not to mock the ceremony and celebrations I witnessed on 21st June. It is, however, a reminder that national identity projects have to be assembled. As I was standing in the crowd, a Greenlandic man handed me a national flag and the waiting crowds waved their flags with great fervor. It was an exciting moment. And I was moved by the crowd’s energy. Greenland, since the referendum in 2008, is coming closer to independence. The world’s first indigenous nation might come to fruition and in so doing change a colonial relationship with Denmark, originating in the eighteenth century.

But what kind of future might Greenland face? Well according to some in the Government of Greenland it will be one based on resources. Greenland is generously endowed. It has fish, it has minerals and it might well have a great deal of oil and gas in its waters as well. And multinational corporations and countries such as China are interested in doing business in Nuuk and elsewhere. A resource-based future is not for the faint hearted. There are quite a few examples around the world where resources such as oil and gas seem to act as a curse to human development. For Greenland, if there is a model of sorts then it is epitomized by Norway. Whereas Norway has about 5 million people, Greenland only has 60,000 people living on the world’s largest island.

So there is an urgent need (according to some at least) to ensure that, as the country’s resources are further exploited, Greenlanders are in a position to take advantage of opportunities to reduce their dependency on Denmark and the so-called annual block grant. But not everyone is happy with the pace of change and there are fears that local people are not being sufficiently consulted. People complained to me that there is a lack of a vigorous debate about the future of the country. Some are worried that they might swap one form of dependency (with Denmark as former colonial master) with another, which is tied to foreign investors, markets and corporations.

Prof Dodds in Greenland

Prof Dodds in Greenland

All this talk about resources and possible independence in the future sits uneasily with scientific debates regarding climate change and the fate of the Greenlandic ice cap. Greenland is currently represented as both a resource frontier but also on the frontline of global environmental change. As with other areas of the Arctic region, resource extraction feeds the very processes judged to be responsible for regional and global warming trends. It is a paradox for sure; but one that is not going to delay Greenland’s apparent commitment to a resource-led future. In the meantime, public disquiet over domestic consultation, trust and openness as well as foreign stakeholder commitment to indigenous rights will continue to rumble on.

After watching the national day celebrations, I returned to the university. It is perched up on a hill just outside Nuuk and the main buildings bear some resemblance to Royal Holloway’s International Building. I stress some resemblance because at the University of Greenland you also enjoy a view filled with snow-capped mountains, peninsulas and a fjord filled with sea ice. Throughout the week, Mark introduced me to his new PhD students – they all speak three languages fluently (Danish, English, and Greenlandic) and they are all eager to tackle topics relevant to the here and now as well as the future facing Greenland. They are all native Greenlandic and they are all committed to being active and engaged scholars and citizens. No complacency to be found here at least.

Greenland is changing. And don’t be tempted to think of it as remote, forbidding and disconnected. It is anything but. You may well see the world’s first indigenous nation-state take its place on the world stage in the next decade.


About rhulscience

The Faculty of Science at Royal Holloway, University of London
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