COPENHAGEN Greenland can take a big step towards independence on Tuesday when it votes on self-governance from Denmark but an underdeveloped economy and social problems are hurdles to full sovereignty.
Prime Minister Hans Enoksen told Reuters that a "Yes" would mean that Greenlanders would be recognised as equal to other people under international law and that he hoped the country would achieve independence in his lifetime.
"When that happens, I will raise the flag at our house in Itilleq with happiness and deep-felt gratitude with my grown grandchildren by my side," he told Reuters on Monday through a translator.
The Arctic island has had home rule since 1979 but under the new law it will control its mineral and oil resources and eventually take charge of 32 additional fields of responsibility from Denmark, including justice and legal affairs, as it becomes economically viable to do so.
With a "Yes," Greenlandic will become the official language of the island, but the country will still be part of the Kingdom of Denmark after the new law is adopted on June 21 next year.
"With self-governance, we will establish the framework for future generations, it will be their job to handle the task of independence," Enoksen said.
The islanders control their own fate as Denmark has said Greenlanders alone must decide when to cut the final ties between the two countries after nearly 300 years of Danish rule.
A University of Nuuk poll earlier this month showed that three quarters of the island's 57,000 inhabitants favoured more autonomy.
Greenland is dependent on yearly subsidies of 3.2 billion crowns (356.2 million pounds) from Copenhagen, about 30 percent of its gross domestic product.
Shrimp and halibut fishing and tourism currently form the backbone of the economy but the island is rich in minerals and its waters potentially hold vast hydrocarbon reserves, although full-scale production is decades away.
Denmark and Greenland have agreed to split potential oil income 50-50. Climate change has caused Greenland's ice sheet to melt increasingly fast in recent years, threatening traditional ways of life but making drilling for oil more feasible.
GDP per capita in Greenland is about two-thirds of the Danish average but the suicide rate is more than seven times higher.
Enoksen admitted that Greenland faced challenging social problems, with alcoholism, substance abuse and high suicide rates.
"These problems are part of the heritage of colonisation. We have to do something about this. But we should not forget also that we have many well-functioning families and young people," he said.
Enoksen said coming generations would be stronger and that those who say that all social problems must be solved before moving to self-governance were wrong.
Mininnguaq Kleist, the head of the self-governance office of the Home-Rule Government, said Greenland was not yet ready to live without financial assistance from Denmark, at least not without sacrificing its current standard of living.
Enoksen said Greenlanders would have to be strengthened as a people before independence but he maintained that the discovery of oil offshore is not a prerequisite as the country is rich in minerals, with several mines already in operation.
"We have to work ourselves out of the shadow of colonial times. We can only do that through education," he said.
(Reporting by Kim McLaughlin)