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Greenland’s economy has long been dependent on fishing. That is about to change. The inhabitants of the polar island hope for treasures under the ice and for tourists with purchasing power. In this way Greenland finally wants to achieve complete independence from the Danish Kingdom.

The ruby mine in southern Greenland, where the red mineral has recently been mined, is small. But for the inhabitants of the Arctic island it is a source of great hope. “We talked for a very long time about getting mines up and running, and now it’s finally happening,” says Greenland’s raw materials minister Muté Egede.

“This is a success story that can form the basis for us to become a great mining nation in the future”.

Land of ice Greenland – the largest island in the world

Because under the ice many more mineral treasures are supposed to lie dormant: Oil, uranium, rare earths. But the harsh conditions in this almost inaccessible country have so far caused investors to hesitate. Greenland is not able to achieve the urgently needed economic miracle simply by hoping for raw materials. This is why the country is also concentrating on other sectors such as tourism.

So far, however, the number of holidaymakers taking the long and expensive route to the polar island is manageable. Around 70,000 tourists come to Greenland every year, a third of them on cruise ships. “We have to start from scratch, expand the existing hotels and train guides,” says Prime Minister Kim Kielsen. “We still have a huge task ahead of us.”

Infrastructure poorly developed

One problem is the lack of infrastructure. If you want to get from one city to another in Greenland, you have to fly or take a boat. There are no railways or roads outside the largest cities. This not only takes a lot of time, but also money. Plans to build more roads and a second international airport exist only on paper for the time being.

Ilulissat alone is a tourist stronghold, a small town with almost 4500 inhabitants and few streets. If you walk up from the harbour with the big fish factory of Royal Greenland to the Eisfjord, you pass unadorned souvenir shops and snacks like the Café Inuit that belongs to a German. Here one gets curry soup with scampi or halibut served at tables with plastic flowers on it.

A stone’s throw away is the tour operator “World of Greenland”, which offers whale safaris, helicopter flights over the inland ice and visits to dog handlers, who have not only been fishing on the ice with their sleds for a few years, but also carry tourists. But because this is only a side business so far, many of them don’t speak English and only a few speak Danish. They couldn’t make a living from the holidaymakers alone anyway. “Fish will remain our primary source of income for many years to come,” says Egede. “Being so dependent on the fish industry makes the economy very vulnerable,” explains researcher Maria Ackrén from Nuuk University. Fishing will remain the main source of income for a long time to come.

That is why the magic word is diversification. The government hopes that tourism and raw materials will boost the economy. The goal: complete independence from the Danish Kingdom, to which Greenland has been subject only in defence and foreign policy since 2009. But this is only possible if Greenland stands on its own two feet financially. Around 3.7 billion crowns (almost 500 million euros) flow from Denmark into Greenland’s budget every year.

With the promise of independence, the current government has indeed entered the election campaign. But without the financial injection from the kingdom it still won’t work today. “We must improve education in order to achieve independence,” says Kielsen.

In the seventh grade of the school in Nuussuaq, a new district in Greenland’s capital Nuuk, teacher Inger Platou barely manages to drown out the noisy pupils. One girl has taken off her shoes and sits backwards on the table, another paints a beard of soap foam on the sink, a third shoots Selfies with her mobile phone and listens to music loudly. 12 out of 19 students attended classes that day. “A difficult class,” says Platou. Due to the social problems in Nuuk and other places in Greenland, many parents left their children to themselves, says the 61-year-old. Hash and alcohol abuse are widespread. “I’ve smoked hash too,” says Lea, a petite twelve-year-old in hoodies and tracksuit pants. “I think most people here have.”

Many are drawn abroad

Snow mountains pile up on the football field in front of the window. Because the teachers are worried that everyone will get enough to eat at home, the students eat a meal together in the classroom. Lea shovels meatballs in curry sauce onto her plate.

“After school I want to move to Denmark,” she says. The drop-out rate at Greenland schools is high, says Idrissia Thestrup, who works for Visit Greenland.

Many of those who manage the school go abroad. The economy thus loses valuable manpower. Here on the island, many young people see hardly any prospects for the future. Unemployment is around ten percent. Among other things, new jobs are to be created in the planned mines. “We are trying to use as much manpower as possible from here,” says Minister Egede. Around 80 Greenlanders are employed in the ruby mine opened in May. Another small mine is scheduled to go into operation at the end of the year. But for larger projects – such as a planned zinc mine in North Greenland – there is a lack of trained miners.

Despite many licenses for the development of the deposits, most plans are still on hold. Much remains to be done for more investors to venture into Greenland. Climate change could also make a contribution. Greenlanders do not only see disadvantages in the fact that the ice is melting. “If more land is accessible, there will be larger areas to explore,” says Egede. He is not worried that global warming could threaten the lives of the islanders. “We have always adapted to nature, so we will be able to cope with what is now coming our way.