Voters deliver rebuke over Greenland minerals rush

NUUK Wed Mar 13, 2013 6:25pm GMT

1 of 2. Greenland's Prime Minister Kuupik Kleist (front R) talks to reporters after voting in Nuuk, March 12, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Alistair Scrutton

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NUUK (Reuters) - An Inuit woman brought up to skin seals looked set to become Greenland's first female prime minister after a backlash against foreign miners and fears over environmental damage carried her party to election victory.

Aleqa Hammond's Siumut party won 42 percent of votes and around 14 seats in the 31-seat parliament, meaning she will need to form a coalition. Prime Minister Kuupik Kleist won some 34 percent of votes, according to official results on Wednesday.

The opening of the country of 57,000 people to international miners aroused concern among its indigenous Inuit people, many of whom rely on fishing for a living and fear both Chinese exploitation of their mineral resources and the risks of pollution from heavy industries.

"We are welcoming companies and countries that are interested in investing in Greenland," Hammond told Reuters in her first interview since her win. "At the same time we have to be aware of the consequences as a people."

"Greenland should work with countries that have the same values as we have, on how human rights should be respected. We are not giving up our values for investors sake."

With sea ice thawing and new shipping routes opening in the Arctic, the former Cold War ally of the West has emerged from isolation and gained geopolitical attention from the likes of Beijing and Brussels thanks to its untapped mineral wealth and potential offshore oil and gas.

"Greenland will be entering new challenges regarding new industries," said Hammond, who speaks English, German, Greenlandic and Danish.

"The outside world will be experiencing leadership of Greenland where the leader is strong in terms of traditions and culture and at the same time is global."

Hammond said she would take a more critical look at Chinese mining investments in Greenland, a country that is a quarter the size of the United States, and raise royalties on miners.

Despite her international pedigree - Hammond studied in Montreal and became a tourism manager in Greenland - the 47-year-old is very conscious of her roots.

Her father died when she was young after he fell through ice while hunting. At the age of 13 she won permission from the Bishop of Greenland to change her Danish first name to a Greenlandic name.

"From an early stage I was very determined about my understanding of who I am, my culture and language," she said.

"I was raised to be a hunter's wife. I know how to make boots, pants for a hunter and I know how to scrape seal and reindeer skins and dry them thanks to my grandmother."

Her mother cried for two days when she realised her first born was a girl, not a boy. Her name means "big sister to young brothers". Her family tried to make her marry a hunter.

"But no one is marrying women who talk too much," she said with self-deprecating humour at her campaign headquarters.

POLICY CHANGES FOR MINERS

There is still a broad consensus in Greenland that foreign investment is needed to help bring in revenues and wean the self-governing country off an annual grant from former colonial master Denmark that pays for more than half its budget.

But one of the most controversial plans is a proposal for a $2.3 billion mining project by British-based London Mining Plc near Nuuk that could supply iron ore to China. Some 2,000 Chinese workers could be flown in for its construction.

Hammond told Reuters she would revise a law on allowing big-scale miners to employ cheap foreign labour and pass a law requiring foreign miners to negotiate deals with trade unions.

She also said she would cut taxes on company profits but raise royalties.

On the other hand, she would lift a ban on mining radioactive materials that stopped some plans for rare earths deposits, crucial in 21st technology like smartphones.

That would benefit the development of a deposit in southern Greenland, being explored by Australian-owned Greenland Minerals and Energy, that may be one of the biggest rare earths deposits outside China.

SEAL HUNTERS

The election result highlighted how many more Inuits, from fishermen to seal hunters, felt Kleist had embraced foreign investors too quickly.

"It has been a slap in the face," Kleist told local TV.

Hammond said she could support China's application for observer status at the Arctic Council, but said she would take a more critical look at Chinese investments.

Greenland's smallness may make it open to influence from big powers. EU officials have expressed concern about China's influence in Greenland, part of what some analysts say is a multi-pronged Arctic strategy by Beijing to secure resources.

The capital, Nuuk, now has an art cinema, sushi bars, Thai restaurants and gleaming new office towers alongside older, grey Soviet-style housing estates. The capital of 15,000 people has two traffic lights and no roads or train links with the rest of the country - the only way in or out is by plane or boat.

Ice floes often are so thin that hunters can no longer use dog sledges and many Inuits fear miners exploiting Greenland's resources may employ more foreigners than locals.

"This government talks too much about mining and not enough about fishermen," said Job Heilmann, a 48-year-old who hunts for seal and reindeer after he voted on Tuesday. He complained about fish quotas, poor market access for seal skins and restrictions over harpoon guns for whale hunting.

(Editing by Michael Roddy)

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