Two of the dominant political themes in Greenland in recent years have been independence from Denmark and uranium mining. As of now, Greenland's economy does not sustain financial autonomy. In 2013, Greenland's parliament, Inatsisartut, abolished its zero-tolerance policy for uranium mining, distancing itself from a quarter of a century of political support for renewable energy. During all this time, acceptance of the uranium ban was unanimous both in Inatsisartut and the Danish parliament. The rationale behind this decision was that exploitation of Greenland's mineral resources was the quickest way to economic self-sufficiency and full independence from Denmark. Since then, the position on uranium mining has been one of the main determining factors in forming subsequent government coalitions.
Lately, the applications for mining licenses have exploded. In 2019, there were approximately 70 large scale exploration and exploitation licenses and this year it could be more.
Few if any World Heritage Sites have more or bigger mining projects in their vicinity than the Kujataa UNESCO World Heritage Site in Southern Greenland. The property ‒ one of Greenland's three world heritage sites ‒ was inscribed on UNESCO's world heritage list in 2017.1 It comprises a sub-arctic farming landscape consisting of five components that represent key elements of the Norse Greenlandic and modern Inuit farming cultures. On one hand they are distinct, on the other they are both pastoral farming cultures located on the climatic edges of viable agriculture, depending on a combination of farming, pastoralism and marine mammal hunting. The landscape constitutes the earliest introduction of farming to the Arctic.
Some of the world's biggest mining projects
Situated in Greenland's southernmost and smallest municipality, Kommune Kujalleq, Kujaata has recently found itself in the geopolitical epicenter of growing international friction between the U.S. and China that both want access to Greenland's rich mineral resources. These include zinc, copper, nickel, gold, diamonds and platinum group metals, but first and foremost substantial deposits of rare earth elements (REEs) and uranium.
Greenland is estimated to hold 38.5 million tons of rare earth oxides, while total reserves for the rest of the world stand at 120 million tons. Furthermore, Greenland has some of the world's largest undiscovered oil and gas reserves and could develop into the next environmental frontline – not unlike the Amazon Rainforest in South America.
Some of the biggest REEs mining projects in the world are located in Kommune Kujalleq, only a few kilometres from the Kujataa World Heritage Site. The biggest and most controversial is the Kvanefjeld REEs-uranium mining project, owned by the Australian company Greenland Minerals Ltd. (GML).
According to GML, in addition to containing the second biggest uranium2 and by far the largest thorium deposits, the Ilimaussaq-complex, of which Kvanefjeld is a part, possesses the second largest deposits of rare earth elements in the world. The mine, which would be the world's second largest open pit uranium mine, is located on top of a mountain, almost one kilometre above sea-level, only six kilometres away from Narsaq, a town of approximately 1,500 inhabitants, and also near some of the parts of the Kujataa World Heritage Site.
A second major project close to Kujataa is the Kringlerne REEs mining project, which is described by the owner, the Australian mining company Tanbreez Mining Greenland A/S, as probably the largest deposit of REEs in the world.3 In 2013, the Greenlandic government estimated that Kringlerne contained more than 4.3 billion tons of ore.4 The minerals will be extracted from two open pits at high altitude.5
A third substantial project is the Motzfeldt Sø REE mining project6, which is part of the Motzfeldt Centre and owned by Tanbreez's parent company, Rimbal Pty Ltd. So far, not much is known about this project. After years of delays, decisions on whether to grant the owners of the Kvanefjeld and Kringlerne exploitation licenses are expected to be made by the Greenlandic government later this year. Public hearings on projects in the last phase of their Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) processes could start at any time.7
Kvanefjeld – a contentious mining project
Because of the attention given to the Kvanefjeld uranium/REEs mining project over the last decade, several other mining projects in Kommune Kujalleq have been able to fly under the radar. The plans for the Kvanefjeld mine started more than 60 years ago, not in Greenland, but in Denmark, when its uranium deposit was discovered and further explored by the Danish Nuclear Energy Commission, which needed a stable uranium supply for the Denmark's planned nuclear power program. The people in Greenland and both their leading government parties, Siumut and Inuit Ataqatigiit, were against the project.
After the Danish rejection of nuclear power and the decision in 1988 by the Joint Committee on Mineral Resources in Greenland not to issue permits for uranium exploration and extraction, the Kvanefjeld project was off the political agenda for many years. This changed in 2008, when Kvanefjeld's owner, GML, decided, that the company wanted to mine not only REEs, but also uranium. If it did not get permission, it would abandon the project.8
Where the uranium so far had been considered the main deposit, it was now mentioned as a by-product of the REEs that GML wanted to exploit. Ironically, this happened the same year that the former explorations director of Geological Survey of Greenland (GGU – now GEUS) estimated the uranium deposit to be 600,000 tons for the whole Ilimaussaq complex, of which Kuannersuit is a part.9 That is 14 times more than in the 1970s and the 1980s. It was since been upgraded to be the second largest deposit in the world, surpassed only by the Australian Olympic Dam uranium mine.
From being perceived as a conspicuous example of Danish colonialism, Kvanefjeld was now marketed as a means of economic independence from Denmark. However it has since become clear that more oil and minerals extraction is not a real prerequisite for financial autonomy. In 2014, a study was published by the University of Copenhagen and Ilisimatusarfik, the University of Greenland.10 It concluded that 24 concurrent large-scale mining projects would be required to zero out the financial support from Denmark. To achieve this within a reasonable timeframe, a new large-scale project would have to be developed and launched every other year and an unrealistically large number of mineral deposits required. The report also established that a mineral-based economy is not economically sustainable: when the mining industry started to recede, Greenland would find itself in the same situation as before, only with fewer resources. These findings have since been confirmed by other reports.11
Calls to enlarge of the Kujataa World Heritage Site
Especially in Southern Greenland, there has long existed a notion that the Kujataa World Heritage Site in its present form has been delineated to accommodate the Kvanefjeld mining project and that the potential impacts of the other mining projects surrounding the site have not been considered. In March 2018, responding to call for submissions by Greenland's Ministry of Education, Culture, Research and Church and the Danish Ministry of Culture's Agency for Culture and Palaces, the URANI NAAMIK / NO TO URANIUM Society in Narsaq proposed that Kujataa should be extended to include large parts of the Erik Aappalaartup Nunaa Peninsula (or the Narsaq Peninsula), which should be entered into Greenland's World Heritage Tentative List.
Subsequently, Narsaq Museum's curator recommended that Landnamsgaarden and Dyrnæs Church near Narsaq should be recognised as world heritage and in a letter to URANI NAAMIK, Greenland National Museum and Archive mentioned the big Northener Farm in Narsaq as a possible world heritage prospect.12 Generally, the proposed sites meet a wide range of selection criteria for nomination to the World Heritage Tentative List.13
Kujataa's Outstanding Universal Value under threat
It is also clear that Kujaata's Outstanding Universal Value ‒ i.e. its exceptional cultural and natural significance ‒ will be under threat if the mining projects surrounding the site are implemented. There have already been calls to put Kujaata on the World Heritage Convention's danger list.
Kujataa's unique farming traditions have been a determining factor in designating it as world heritage. However, the Danish Risø National Laboratory has estimated that up to a thousand tons of radioactive dust might be released annually from just the Kvanefjeld open pit mine due to material handling, hauling and blasting and from the ore stock and waste rock piles.14
Most if not all the planned mining projects in the area are open pit mines. A lot of the dust will be carried by heavy arctic sea winds across the region, where it will affect agricultural and other activities. People living in the contaminated area would be chronically exposed to radioactive and other toxic species via drinking water, food and air. Seafood would become contaminated as well, due to the substantial discharges of wastes into the coastal sea.15
It should also be mentioned that Southern Greenland has the country's richest biodiversity and all of Greenland's farm land is situated in the area, which is often described as "Greenland's bread basket". Thus, it will have a hard time co-existing with a large-scale mining industry. Large-scale mining and particularly uranium mining are incompatible with development of three of the four sectors, which are the key growth sectors for Greenland's and particularly the regional economy, namely fishing and catching, tourism and food production.
All of Greenland's sheep stock – more than 20,000 overwintering sheep – are found in Southern Greenland and there is an ambition to introduce beef and dairy cattle, when global warming makes the climate milder. Furthermore, the region has some of the best catch areas: just the small Kujalleq municipality had almost 90,000 catches in 2009 and 2010 of among others birds, land mammals and seals.16
No real plans to protect Kujataa
In addition to having already ignored the threats to the Kujataa World Heritage Site, there is little indication that the Greenlandic and Danish authorities intend to protect the property in the future. It is currently governed and managed by a steering group with representatives from the Greenlandic government, the Greenland National Museum and Archives, Kujalleq Municipality, village councils, farmers, the Danish Agency for Culture and Palaces and the tourism industry.
Although it is acknowledged that the site is vulnerable, it is assumed that the buffer zones are enough to protect the integrity of the property. However, since the current management plan17, which barely touches on the mining issues, was written in 2016, the number of exploration licenses in the region has exploded.
Furthermore, in its description of the impacts of the nearby mining activities, the management plan relies on a draft of an EIA of the Kringlerne mining project18 which was rejected by Greenland's Environmental Agency for Mineral Resources Activities (EAMRA), because it did not contain enough relevant information.
EAMRA has also rejected the four latest EIA draft reports on the Kvanefjeld project because of a lack of information. Among other things, Kvanefjeld's owner, GML, is criticised for not providing a comprehensive assessment of the earthquake risk in the region, final results of tests of toxic elements during extraction and processing, final radiological estimates and results of investigations of impacts of radioactive minerals, and for failing to describe the alternatives regarding management of tailings and the shutdown of the tailings facility.19
In September 2019, the CEO of GML was formally reproached by Greenland's Prime Minister and the Department of Nature and Environment's Permanent Secretary for lobbying high-ranking civil servants and ministers who had no competence within the EIA review process in order to undermine EAMRA's authority.20
A Heritage Impact Assessment is not enough
In December 2018, the Minister of Mineral Resources and Labour was asked by a member of the Parliament whether the government would carry would out a Heritage Impact Assessment (HIA) of the Kvanefjeld mining project and not make a decision on licensing the project, before it had been presented to UNESCO for an evaluation in accordance with Section 172 of the operational guidelines for the World Heritage Convention.
The Minister responded that the government would not take a position on this question before a valid exploitation application had been made by the owner of the project.21 Obviously, this is also an issue in regard to the other big mining projects in the region, because any realistic HIA of Kujataa would need to assess the cumulative effect of mining projects in the area.
However, the biggest problem for not only Kujataa, but all of Greenland's three world heritage sites could be the fact that Greenland's environmental legislation does not mandate strategic environmental impact assessments for minerals exploration areas, which means that no areas in principle are excluded from being licensed and also that the public is not kept informed in advance on what areas could be designated. Thus, implementation of the Aarhus Convention in Greenland should have high priority in order to reinforce Greenland's environmental legislation.22
An earlier version of this article was published in the World Heritage Watch Report 2020, https://world-heritage-watch.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/WHW-Report-2...
1. UNESCO, Kujataa Greenland: Norse and Inuit Farming at the Edge of the Ice Cap (2017),
2. GMEL Company Presentation, Symposium Investor Roadshow, Slide 5 (April 2014),
3. Homepage, Tanbreez: http://tanbreez.com/en/project-overview/key-project-features/
4. Jørn Skov Nielsen, Status for Råstofaktiviteter, Præsentation, Departementet for Erhverv, Råstoffer og Arbejdsmarked, Slide 13 (2013), https://docplayer.dk/18639768-Departementet-for-erhverv-raastoffer-og-ar...
5. Tanbreez Mining Greenland A/S, Tanbreez Project, Environmental Impact Assessment (August 2013),
6. Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, GEUS, The rare earth element potential in Greenland. Geology and Ore, No. 29 (February 2018), https://eng.geus.dk/media/16302/go29.pdf
7. Press release, Naalakkersuisut, Progress on two rare earth projects in South Greenland (March 18, 2020), https://naalakkersuisut.gl/en/Naalakkersuisut/News/2020/03/1803_tanbreez
8. Ajaa Chemnitz Larsen and others, Uranium in Greenland: Risky business, Feature article in Arctic Journal (February 12, 2016) Originally published in Danish in an abbreviated version by the daily Politiken (February 11, 2016), https://noah.dk/sites/default/files/inline-files/160212_Feature%20articl...
9. Henning Sørensen, Grønlands uran og thorium, Tidsskriftet Grønland 4-5, Page 200 (2008), http://www.kamikposten.dk/lokal/last/container/da/hvadermeningen/pdf/gro...
10. The Committee for Greenlandic Mineral Resources to the Benefit of Society, To the Benefit of Greenland (January 2014), https://greenlandperspective.ku.dk/this_is_greenland_perspective/backgro...
11. Torben M. Andersen og Ulla Lynge, Dystre udsigter for Grønlands økonomi, kronik i Jyllands-Posten (September 26, 2014), http://jyllands-posten.dk/debat/kronik/article7055964.ece
12. NGO press release, Kvanefjeld Mining Project Endangers UNESCO World Heritage Site (August 8, 2018), https://noah.dk/node/1109
13. With respect to Kvanefjeld and the Ilimmaasaq Complex with their more than 200 different minerals, mainly criteria 7 and 8 are relevant. See UNESCO World Heritage Convention homepage: https://whc.unesco.org/en/criteria/
14. Kim Pilegaard, Preliminary environmental impact statement for the Kvanefjeld uranium mine, Risø National Laboratory, Page 44 (September 1990), https://backend.orbit.dtu.dk/ws/portalfiles/portal/56472284/ris_m_2875.pdf
15. NGO press release, The Kvanefjeld project does not meet Greenland's Mineral Resources Act's environmental and climate requirements (March 10, 2017), https://noah.dk/sites/default/files/2017-03/2017-03-10%20Press%20release...
16. Naalakkersuisut, Departementet for Fiskeri, Fangst og Landbrug: Fangstrapport 2012. Since then, there has not been easily accessible statistics on the subject.
17. Kujataa Management Plan 2016-2020 (January 2016),
18. See note 5.
19. Kalaallit Nunaata Radioa, Kuannersuit ‒ Greenland Minerals har ansøgt om udvindingstilladelse (July 25, 2019), https://knr.gl/da/nyheder/greenland-minerals-har-ansøgt-om-udvindingsti...
20. Naalakkersuisut's decision on GML's complaint against EAMRA. (September 6, 2019),
See also: GML's complaint to EAMRA. (April 4, 2019),
For an update on the status of the Kuannersuit/Kvanefjeld mining project, see: Nuclear Monitor: New setback for the Kvanefjeld mining project in Greenland, Issue #879, 04/11/2019: https://wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/879/new-setback-kvanefjeld...
21. Ministeren for Råstoffer og Arbejdsmarked, Erik Jensen, Besvarelse af spørgsmål nr. 2018/305 vedrørende borgerinddragelse og HIA fra medlem af Inatsisartut, Sofia Geisler, 27.11.2018, (December 10, 2018), https://ina.gl/documents/para3637/2018/svar/305_2018_Kuannersuit_SOGEI_s...
22. For more information on Greenland's legislation in this field, see Ellen Margrethe Basse, Juridisk responsum om den gældende grønlandske lovgivning vurderet i lyset af Århuskonventionen, Juridisk Institut, Business and Social Sciences, Aarhus Universitet (June 2014), http://kortlink.dk/naalakkersuisut/pk6q