Greenland’s gamble on modernization [mining, oil and gas] – by Gwynne Dyer (Hamilton Spectator – February 1, 2014)

Will vulnerable cultures be sacrificed in the race for economic growth?

Greenland has the highest suicide rate in the world: One in five Greenlanders tries to commit suicide at some point in their lives.

Everybody in Greenland (all 56,000 of them) knows this. In fact, everybody knows quite a few people who have tried to commit suicide, and one or two who have succeeded.So is it really a good idea to subject this population to an experiment in high-speed cultural and economic change?

Greenland is not fully independent: Denmark still controls its defence and foreign affairs, and subsidizes the population at the annual rate of about $10,000 per person. But Greenlanders are one of the few aboriginal societies on the planet that is dominant (almost 90 per cent of the population) on a large territory: the world’s biggest island. And it is heading for independence.

So the debate in this soon-to-be country is about what to aim for. Do you go on trying to preserve what is left of the old Arctic hunting and fishing culture, although it’s already so damaged and discouraged that it has the highest suicide rate on the planet?

Or do you put the pedal to the metal and seek salvation in full modernization through high-speed economic growth (while keeping your language and what you can of your culture)?

What’s remarkable about Greenland politics is how aware the players are of their dilemma and their options.

“If you want to become rich, it comes at a price,” says Aqqaluk Lynge, one of the founders of the Inuit Ataqatigiit (Community of the People) party that ran the government until recently.

Lynge doesn’t want to pay that price, and under the Inuit Ataqatigiit administration all mining was banned in Greenland. Quite apart from the environmental costs of large-scale mining operations, Lynge said, the many thousands of foreign workers they would bring in would have a devastating impact on what is already a very fragile Greenlandic culture.

But the Siumut (Forward) party won last October’s election, and new Prime Minister Aleqa Hammond sees things very differently. Essentially, she thinks modernization has gone too far to turn back now. Better to gamble on solving the current huge social problems (like suicide) by enabling everybody to live fully modern, prosperous lives. If you’re no longer marginalized and poverty-stricken, you’ll feel better about yourself.

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