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16 Jan, 2009 07:50

Greenlanders ready to break free?

Greenland has been ruled by Denmark for more than two centuries but now the people there want to be their own masters.

Following a nationwide referendum, the overwhelming consensus was for Greenland to go it alone…but is Greenland truly ready for independence?

Greenland is the largest island on earth, but not enough to be a continent in its own right, nor even a nation.

Its icy lands are almost half the size of the entire European Union but just 56,000 people live there. It remains a protectorate of Denmark, its former colonial master.

Hans Enoksen, Prime Minister of Greenland dreams his country will become independent one day.

“It’s always been my dream to see us take control of our own destiny, to be our own masters, during my lifetime,” he said.

The first step was taken on November 25 when the largely Inuit population of the island went to the polls over a plan for greater self-determination. A resounding 75% voted “Yes!”

It means the government in the capital Nuuk can now take on some 32 new areas of responsibility including: its police force, the law courts, and the coast guard, but not its own foreign and defence policies. They will still be managed over 3,500 km away from Copenhagen.

Greenland can still rely on the annual subsidiary it receives from Denmark. At $US 588 million it accounts for some two-thirds of the island’s economy. It’s something they’d lose if all ties with Denmark were severed.

“Independence is Independence,” said Mikaela Engell, the Senior Counselor for Greenland in the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Independence is setting up a country of your own, with an economy of your own. Greenland is sort of in a middle stage right now – but full statehood means full independence, which means no grants.”

Could Greenland, however, cope without that support?

Extended self-rule also means a revision of rules under which oil revenues are split with Denmark in Greenland’s favour.

“It’s not a question anymore, even if they are going to find oil in Greenlandic area, and they will, it’s only a question of time now,” said Per Berthelsen, the Greenlandic Minister for Finance and Foreign Affairs.

Up to 100 billion barrels are thought to lurk beneath the icy waters, which is almost half the size of Saudi Arabia’s entire reserves. So is oil what the referendum was really all about?

I think they were voting for the hope they were going to earn a lot of money on their oil,“ said Mr Soren Espersen, MP from the Danish People’s Party. ”But I don’t believe that such a small country, and so badly educated as Greenland, compared to the rest of the Nordic countries, will be able to maintain like a foreign service. So I think it will be such an easy grab for the Americans."

There’s no denying the scale of social problems that plague Greenland’s tiny population: alcohol abuse, domestic violence and a staggeringly high suicide rate. Even the centre for sexually abused children in the capital Nuuk says it can’t cope with demand for spaces.

So will greater autonomy be a hindrance or a help? This question, however, is not something that dominates neighbourly conversation. People here say they’re more concerned about Greenland’s increasingly warm waters and thinning ice.

Greenlander Niels Davidsen comes from a long line of hunters.

“We can’t just become totally independent from Denmark, and we don’t want that anyway. We just want more self-control,” he said.