Upon gaining self-governance from Denmark in 2009, the Greenlandic rule has encouraged the expansion of the natural resource extraction industry and opened up the country’s rich range of mineral deposits to foreign investment . Despite this, costs and risks of mining in Greenland have remained high due to harsh arctic conditions, limited infrastructure and the remoteness of mine deposits .
Mining projects have sparked conflicts between Greenland’s collective land rights and the country administration’s goal to provide private mining companies with access to its resources . A member and previous president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) Greenland, Aqqaluk Lynge, argues that Greenland’s mining industry is facing problems by ignoring underlying contradictions that surface in this debate around ownership rights over land and resources .
One mining project that has embodied this debate is the Isua iron ore mine proposed by London Mining Greenland A/S, around 150km north-east of the Greenland’s capital Nuuk . It is located at the edge of the inland ice in the Isukasia area near the Nuup Kangerlua (also Godthaab Fjord) in an area traditionally used for reindeer hunting, creating a right of ownership conflict in the project which has also faced criticism regarding its public consultation process .
The first discovery of iron ore resources at Isua dates back to 1965, and several companies have carried out exploratory drilling since . London Mining Greenland A/S (henceforth LMG) acquired their exploration license for the Isua project in 2005, the first large-scale mining project granted in Greenland . By 2010, a pre-feasibility study had been completed and LMG had undertaken three exploration drilling campaigns at the site . 2012 saw the approval of the so-called ‘Large Scale Project Act’ (‘Storskalaloven’) in Inatsisartut (the Greenlandic Parliament) which created a framework that eased the possibility for companies to bring foreign workforce exempt from the country’s labour standards into Greenland for the construction of large scale mining projects [7, 8].
This affected the Isua mining project, where LMG’s proposed plans to bring a large amount of foreign workers into the country sparked controversy . Leading up to LMG’s application for an exploitation license, issues regarding the company’s public consultation process emerged. The Isua project faced a range of criticisms including the one-sidedness of public consultation meetings and lack of information made available to the public, such as forgetting to inform about a public meeting in Nuuk in 2010 and providing the majority of the materials only in English [9, 10]. Problematic issues in this process included that LMG were able to decide the extent of the consultations, a local consultancy with clients in the mining sector chaired the meetings and the hearings did not include the intended dialogue between stakeholders . According to Avataq, Naalakkersuisut (Government of Greenland) and LMG were not following their own guidelines for the EIA process, creating a serious democratic concern  and an EJ issue. This has sparked appeals for improved communication between the state administration, municipality and citizens as well as increased awareness around public consultation processes for similar projects in Greenland [5, 11, 12].
Despite these concerns, LMG applied for a 30-year exploitation license in 2012 which was subsequently granted in 2013 . However, the Isua project faced delays when the previous owner of the project, British London Mining Plc., filed for bankruptcy in 2014 . This lead to Naalakkersuisut in December 2014 approving the transfer of London Mining Greenland A/S shares to the Hong-Kong-based trading company General Nice Development Ltd., with their main operational centre in China . Through this indirect transfer, the project has become the first of its kind in the Arctic region fully-owned by a Chinese company .
The transfer was based on Naalakkersuisut’s assessment that General Nice would be able to raise the necessary financing for the project . In the years following this transfer, no active steps have been taken in the process of developing the mine . In 2018, Naalakkersuisut agreed to extend LMG’s exploitation license, indicating continued interest in the mine . Now the Chinese-backed company must submit an exploitation and closure-plan as well as document the mine’s financial capacity by the end of 2021 and start mining operations by the end of 2025 . Prior to releasing its environmental impact assessment (EIA, in Greenland VVM), LMG stated that there were no environmental issues with the Isua project .
However, the Greenlandic environmental organisation Avataq have stated that Nuup Kangerlua (Godthaab Fjord) and surrounding areas including Qussuk, Illulialik Aningannaaq, Ujarassuit and Majuala will be negatively affected by the proposed mine [9, 10]. The EIA for the project was undertaken by Orbicon A/S on behalf of LMT from 2008 to 2011 . Results pointed to the major environmental impacts of the open-pit mine being the alteration of the landscape and visual disturbance in the area, hydrological impacts in the tailings pond which will gradually fill up, noise disturbance, disturbance and displacement of caribou in the traditional hunting area and an increase in carbon emissions due to the energy supply being based on 100% fossil fuels .
Both WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) and ICC have expressed concerns with the energy supply in particular, and recommended that a study is conducted into the possibility of developing an alternative greener energy supply . According to the project’s social impact assessment (SIA) conducted by Grontmij A/S on behalf of LMG, the project’s social impacts include potential social conflicts with an influx of international workers, pressure on public services as well as safety conditions at the mine site . But environmental organisations such as Avataq and WWF as well as journalists have pointed towards the location of the mine in a traditional caribou hunting and fishing area as a concern, where the president of Avataq expressed in the press that neither the government nor the mining company were taking this sufficiently into consideration [3, 11, 18].
Naalakkersuisut stated in 2014 that it expected the large-scale mining project to have significant effects on local businesses and development in the municipality of Qeqqata . The project’s social impact assessment (SIA) conducted in 2009 to 2012 assessed the main contributions from the project to include an increase in public revenue, local employment as well as training and education opportunities . However, given the recentness of the ‘Large Scale Project Act’ and the lack of previous experience from other large-scale projects in Greenland, concerns especially around the labour division between local and international workers and impacts on hunting and fishing practices in the area have framed the proposed mining project [3, 6, 11].
Local environmental organisations ‘Nuup Kangerluata Ikinngutai’ (‘Friends of Nuuk Fjord’), Avataq and ‘Foreningen 16. August’ have been active in mobilising against London Mining Greenland A/S’s proposed iron mine. Protests against LMG organised by the newly-found organisation ‘Nuup Kangerluata Ikinngutai’ were held in March 2012 in Nuuk, where around 60 people attended . Another protest was scheduled by the same organisation again in September 2012 .
Later that year, protests against the ‘Large Scale Project Act’ (‘Storskalaloven’) and the Isua mine project were scheduled in Nuuk in November 2012 by the president of the organisation ‘Foreningen 16. August’ (Association 16. August) . The origins of this association go back to a different conflict over rights to land and resources, where the government banned local people from collecting rubies and other gemstones in an area dedicated to a Canadian mining company . The protest in November 2012 was also attended by environmental organisations ‘Nuup Kangerluata Ikinngutai’ (‘Friends of Nuuk Fjord’) and Avataq . The organiser of the protest emphasised that the demonstrations were not against development in Greenland, but that development should take place on proper and informed terms, which he stated was currently not the case .
The future of the project remains uncertain as long as iron ore prices remain low . Further difficulties faced by the project include the predicted high project costs, labour shortages and Greenland’s strict environmental regulations, according to the Chinese news source ‘China Daily’ . An analyst for Chinese consultancy Mysteel pointed out that the project is seen as unprofitable, but could be an opportunity for Chinese mining companies to test their ability in challenging Arctic conditions . A presentation by General Nice Development Ltd. in October 2015 also stated that the project had no commercial value under market conditions at the time .