Published August 8, 2013
This article was originally featured in French in the print version of Le Monde. It is part 2 of a special 6-part summer series. See the full multi-media feature online.
Qaqortoq, with 3,200 residents, is the principal town in Greenland’s southern district. Situated at the end of an immense fjord and clinging to the side of a mountain, this village of fishermen and hunters is surrounded by nature’s majestic beauty. The population is a diverse mix of Inuits, Scandinavians, and people of mixed blood, but everyone here agrees that global warming, which has impacted this region quite dramatically, is the best thing to have ever happened to Greenland. Folks have become used to milder winters and warmer, drier summers, and don’t care to debate the reasons behind climate change. Of course it all depends on how you look at it: In the middle of July there are enormous icebergs in the bay, but last summer the temperature frequently rose to around 25 degrees centigrade. The older residents never cease to be amazed by the weather fluctuations, while the younger generation see climate change as a reality that brings with it the promise of a better life for everyone.
One of the most noticeable developments here is an increase in produce gardening, a skill unknown in traditional Inuit culture. Towards the end of the 20th century, a few determined folks succeeded in growing potatoes, turnips and rhubarb during a short, cool summer season. Yet in recent years, many more people are growing carrots, lettuce, parsley, strawberries, and in some cases even flowers and shrubs, around their properties. A grocery store in the village is already selling seeds for beans, zucchinis and pumpkins.
Poul Berje, a retired agricultural engineer, was one of the first in the area to experiment with growing fruits and vegetables at a research center across the fjord.
“I had a lot of problems when I started this project, but in the years since my retirement summers have lengthened by one month, so it's easier now. Everyone helps out. It’s fun.”
Last year, as a sign of the times, his neighbor, a fisherman, asked for his help in planting vegetables. “I taught him the basics, and now he’s doing a good job by himself.”
Still, there are no certainties when it comes to climate change. The winter of 2013 was mild for the most part, but the summer is starting off cool and wet. The villagers refuse to even consider that global warming has stopped, and some of them have trouble hiding their concerns. Sofie Kielsen, a retired shopkeeper, visits her vegetable garden with a mixture of pride and anxiety.
“This year, the potatoes and turnips are small and the rest of the vegetables have still not sprouted. If summer would begin already, I might have strawberries by the end of August. Fingers crossed! I’ve gotten used to the sun, and I miss it.”
Vegetables are very expensive to buy in the stores because they have to be imported from Denmark, the former colonial power, which still retains some control in an autonomous Greenland and provides subsidies. For native Greenlanders, who have a complicated relationship with the Danes, the production of home grown fruits and vegetables has almost become an issue of sovereignty. Kelly Berthelsen, a town councilor and activist in the leftist United Inuit party has come up with an ambitious project.
“When we finally gain more experience and knowledge, we can become self-sufficient, at least in growing vegetables. That would be a good place to start. We could also build hothouses to grow a host of different plants. Thanks to our hydroelectric dams, electricity is inexpensive, so we should take advantage of it.”
Franck Jorgensen, an administrator with the district council, hopes that the growth in agriculture will contribute to the creation of jobs in the region where unemployment has reached 11 percent.
“We have animal husbandry as well as vegetable production. The number of sheep farms is growing, and not 30 km from here farmers are breeding cows.”
There are already some commercial market gardeners in the region. 56-year-old Otto Nielsen, who breeds sheep on an isolated farm 20 minutes by boat from Qaqortoq, recently diversified into growing vegetables. He plans to sell them in the neighboring villages. “Last year, the summer was so dry, I had to water my garden!”
A first for this region. He even installed solar panels on the roof and the side of his house. Still, the drought slowed the grass growth: Grass will be needed later in the year for sheep fodder. Well, you can’t have it both ways.
Otto’s son is a boarder at an agriculture school and will likely take over the family business. However, his 20-year-old daughter Arnatsiaq has decided to work in a sector that is actually experiencing growth thanks to global warming: the mining industry. She recently enrolled in a new vocational school that specializes in teaching the various mining jobs. “I’ll learn to operate construction equipment and drilling machinery, and to dig the tunnels.” She is also taking classes in physics, chemistry and geology.
It has long been known that Greenland has a mineral-rich subsoil, yet until recently, the harsh climate conditions and problems with transportation limited mining projects. Today, the race is on, and the big international mining companies are setting up shop here and increasing prospecting. Subsoil exploitation has become a national priority for the government of Greenland.
A small gold mine close to Qaqortoq employs 80 people and roughly half of them are indigenous to the region. Nearby, the Australian company Tanbreeze is planning to open a rare-earths mine and has promised the district authorities that it will hire and train local youth. Close to the village of Narsaq, about 30 km from Qaqortoq as the crow flies, another Australian company, GGG, under the control of international investors, has embarked on the more complex project of exploiting a deposit composed of a mixture of rare-earths and uranium. Denmark’s “zero-tolerance” policy on all nuclear industry also applies here, but thanks to its autonomous status, Greenland has the power to reverse this law. Parliament will debate the law next autumn. And the issue is also political: The locals believe that thanks to royalties and taxes paid by the mining companies, Greenland will no longer need the subsidies awarded by Denmark, and can continue its push for full independence.
The residents of Qaqortoq are split on the subject of nuclear power, but according to Franck Jorgensen, the social-democratic majority within the district council approves of uranium mining.
“This project would create more than 400 jobs, so this is a huge deal for us. The company guaranteed us that they would hire people from the area and outsource part of the operations to local companies.” There is a vital need for new business here. The present lack of job opportunities is slowly but surely causing the region’s population to shrink. Mr. Jorgensen doesn’t seem too concerned with the hazards linked to uranium mining. He points out that the minerals mined in this area have a low uranium content, which decreases the risk of contamination. He even hopes that the company will build an on-site ore-processing plant to separate the uranium from the rare earth elements. That would mean the creation of more skilled jobs and would give them access to advanced technology.
LNS-Greenland Mining Services, a subsidiary of a Norwegian company, has opened an office and workshop in the port of Qaqortoq. Rasmus Rasmussen, the co-owner of the company, will not discuss the dangers associated with uranium, but he is ready to propose a wide range of services to GGG if the project gets off the ground. He is convinced that many young people in the area want to become miners, even if this means a cultural adjustment for a nation of hunters and fishermen. GGG is also willing to adapt to local customs:
“If some workers need to go fishing or hunting to provide food for their families, or to earn some extra cash, we would rearrange their schedule. I understand this because I too am a hunter. “
Still, there are people opposed to the mine. Kelly Berthelsen, the town councilor and an activist with United Inuit, supports all mining projects with the exception of uranium.
“We depend primarily on hunting and fishing for food. All radioactive contamination in the air, in the water or in the ground where it would reach the animals would also have catastrophic consequences for our health, not to mention our fish exports.”
He says the mining company intends to bury the radioactive waste in the ground.
“This solution is totally unsuited to local conditions. Here in Greenland more than anywhere else, the freezing and thawing cycles cause the ground to shift.”
The United Inuit are getting ready to launch a national campaign to mobilize the population against this project and formally call for a referendum.
Since the region’s traditional industries are in trouble, the local population is counting on a surge of new industries that are just as important to their survival as fishing. Cod, halibut and lumpfish that used to be plentiful are now scarce. Down at the port, the out-of-work fishermen blame the problem on the increase in ocean temperatures and add that the accelerated melting of ice is filling the fjords with freshwater, which in turn drives the fish back out to the open seas. It’s not just perks that come with global warming...
Hans Janussen, a big strapping 34-year-old, pays no mind to these types of questions.
“Fish change their habits; it’s in their nature.”
Hans spends half his time with his brother who relocated 500 km north to an area where the fish are still plentiful, just so he can continue to ply his trade. He makes the trip in his small boat outfitted with an outboard motor, weaving his way through the islands, reefs and icebergs. Because of the price of diesel and lodging, the majority of independent fishermen are unable to follow in his footsteps, so they continue to fish a few times a week around Qaqortoq. At the far end of the port, business is slow at the fish freezing factory, owned by a company in the Faroe Islands. The factory is equipped to employ 20 people but only four are at work here this July.
Factory boss Marcus Jacobsen has analyzed all the scientific theories on the scarcity of fish in the area and has come to the conclusion that it’s one of nature’s mysteries. Worse still, over on the Russian side of the Arctic Ocean fishing is excellent and the cod have never been more plentiful. These conditions are forcing down the price of fish and exacerbating the situation in Qaqortoq‘s little factory. Marcus is losing a lot of money, but he is determined to stay confident.
“Little by little the cod will return, same way as they left. I’m sure of it. You just have to be patient.”
Meanwhile, the town’s number one prawn fisherman has moved his factory farther to the north.
At the same time, it appears the seals appreciate the new climate patterns. There are a lot of them in the area. Too many--according to the fishermen--because they devour entire schools of fish. A lone hunter spots a colony of seals and manages to kill fifteen in a row. He then crams them into his boat and delivers them directly to the fish market in the harbor. A good thing since the fishing boats came back empty and there is nothing left to buy on the market, except for his seal catch.
The sealskins are packed into vats of salt water and will be sold this evening to the Great Greenland tannery, on the other side of the port.
Thanks to a secret chemical process, Great Greenland turns out soft, silky seal pelts, perfectly suited for the manufacture of clothing, shoes and purses. The factory also houses a small garment workshop.
Great Greenland is the country’s only industrial tannery, but business is not good and everyone knows who is responsible. Birgit Sejersen, the tannery’s assistant director, dispassionately explains the reasons for this disaster: “In 2008, under pressure from Greenpeace, the European Union banned the import of all seal-based products. In one fell swoop, our turnover fell from 68 million DKK to 6 million DKK, and that came from our small domestic market. This resulted in massive dismissals and a loss of skills. It was demoralizing.”
This action was all the more painful because seals are no longer in danger of extinction. “There are, without a doubt, almost six million seals in Greenland, and they are only hunted in the tens of thousands. Our suppliers are independent hunters who only kill adult seals first and foremost as a source of food.”
By 2010, the European Union realized the extent of the losses, and reauthorized the imports from Greenland. But the damage was done. “A lot of people in Europe no longer know if it’s legal or illegal to buy sealskins. It’s a mess.”
Sales have rebounded since 2012, but the tannery is operating at only a third of its capacity. To relaunch its business, the company is turning to the Asian market. “We opened an office in Beijing and we are testing the waters in Japan and South Korea. Our initial findings are encouraging." From where we’re standing, it won’t be long before Europe is no longer the center of the world, and not just for the seals.
Translation by Anne Thurow