Is this the end of the ultimate commons, the world?


This is terrible news for our common world and one of the most beautiful and pristine place on earth, namely Greenland. In a very debated and criticized vote, the 31 member Parliament has just passed (15 against 14 votes) a law allowing companies to mine for uranium and other rare metals. There is already some mining in Greenland but these are very small-scale operations which don’t make much profit because of high logistics costs due the remoteness of their location and the severity of the climate for a good part of the year. However the Parliament decision has opened the way for large scale operations by English, Chinese and Canadian mining companies. It also opens the way for pushing for the right to exploit the huge natural resources of oil and natural gas situated in the North. The rationale behind their decision is that the economy badly needs the revenue and it would have a serious impact on reducing unemployment.

I beg you to read the following extract and tell me how this is going to help reduce Greenland’s unemployment:

” London Mining PLC said on Thursday it has been awarded an exclusive 30-year iron ore extraction contract in Greenland. The statement said it would pay royalties on sales and taxes to Greenland.

The project, called ‘Isua’ is estimated to cost $2.3 billion, more than the island-nation’s $2 billion GDP.

UK-based London Mining said it could extract 15 million tons from the open-pit mine, which it plans to staff with 3,000 Chinese workers.

Greenland passed a law in December allowing companies to pay foreign workers a lower wages, which could undermine the local Greenlander workforce, which is largely unskilled.”   

I don’t know the details of the agreement, but I feel that if mining was unavoidable, this was an opportunity for a Government to adopt a new blueprint for the future of mining in a developing country. With so much at stake and so many companies knocking at the door, they could have imposed their rules. Why not leasing the land for a short period only, and forcing these big multinational conglomerates  to have 75% of their management and workforce coming from Greenland in return from being allowed to exploit the mines. This would give an enormous incentive for the local youth to study, learn new skills and work, and would really help creating a sustainable economy and environment, as the mines would be more and more managed by locals who would have their environment much more at stake than a foreign manager.

I went many times to Greenland. It is a beautiful country of magnificent fjords, stunning mountains and the midnight sun. I went on week long ski touring trips, sleeping in remote cabins.  I even crossed Greenland on skis following the arctic circle. The nature is pristine, its beauty almost magical. It is a very fragile environment which already is terribly affected by global warming (a reason for the renewed interest in mining is the rapid thaw of the ice cap which has made thoses riches much more accessible), which in turn is going to affect the whole planet (predicted rise of the oceans).

When I read that Greenland had allowed uranium mining, it reminded me of another very sad chapter in the history of the loss of our environment. In a beautiful but sad book called “The End of the Game” , Peter Beard writes in 1965 how “the advance of civilization called for the removal of wild game – the central  symbol of African life. In it he writes ” Only 50 years ago man had to be protected from the beasts: today the beasts must somehow be protected from man”. I believe that in 10 years, to paraphrase Peter Beard, we will be able to write that: in Greenland, 10 years ago man had to protect itself from the extreme dangers of nature; today somehow nature has to be protected from the extreme dangers brought by men”.

Could the Mayans have been right when they predicted that the world would end in December 2012? I believe that what they called the world was probably the environment, nature: our largest common. And we just took another giant step towards the end of that world (my only hope is that approval from the Danish parliament which is needed as Greenland is a semi-autonomous territory of Denmark, will be refused).  I feel that it is very cool and up-to-date  to worry and talk about the environment and saving the planet, but the sad reality is that we undermine its sustainability at every opportunity. When will it be enough? When the coast of Greenland will look like the coast of the gulf of Mexico? When there will be no wild game left in Africa?

As a final reflection, I invite you to read the following long article on why America has to be involved in the Arctic…. It is really a pathetic example of our world:  there is plenty about making sure that the US will have its share of the spoils (resources and profit) and nothing about protecting the environment.

Iceland’s president: Arctic crucial to America (

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3 Responses to “Is this the end of the ultimate commons, the world?”

  1. u0953238 Says:

    Interesting article mind probing with a lot of global issues to be debated. For balance sake ,I am happy to share my opinion on the small scale mining operations which are not making any profit. I am well convinced that they are owned by the local people hence the lack on investment in technology and and machinery to make their operations viable. The government is more interested with the foreign investor ( E.D.F case in UK) whose only motive is profit period.

    Most of imported Chinese work force will be saving prisoners who will only be paid peanuts to sustain themselves whilst the parent company is gobbling massive profits.

  2. izabelamichno Says:

    Hi Sabine,

    This is indeed very alarming news… Once again the financial aspect is taken into account, leaving the risks and consequences of this decision to the future generations…
    I would think that the importance of this matter would justify a consultation at the wold level. Greenland is a bit the lungs of the world, so if we start to modify their shape, it will affect all the rest of the body… It shouldn’t be up to few Greenland’s ministers and CEOs to decide what will affect the whole of the planet… I guess the population of the Maldives, which territory is slowly disappearing due to the global warming and the raising of the oceans, has a much interest in this project as the Nuuk’s inhabitants.
    I just hope all risks assessment were done and studied, however I strongly doubt it, because the worst that can happen is to discover the negative impacts step by step as the mining grows and gets bigger in Greenland’s economy. Passed a certain level, the process is unstoppable.
    Can we do anything to stop this?

  3. bay222013 Says:

    It is sad to know that even in the developed world, destruction of land continue in the name of tapping natural resources. It is unbelievable that despite the numerous international conferences on conserving the the environment, new contracts are being signed for mineral extraction. From the onset of capitalism, all the natural resources extracted all over the world is yet to benefit indigenous people whose commons are always enclosed. The reward goes to shareholders while the locals get deprived over and over again.
    It is not surprising though that Greenland government is giving contradictory statement about this contract. It is exactly what developing countries governments usually say. I wander if that is being optimistic or naive about the development prospects of these project. Peter Beard (1965) was precise with his prediction of the destruction of African. As a child we could not go to the farm unaccompanied for fear of wild animals attack. Now those wild animals have disappeared as their habitat is destroyed, only just within the last 20-30years. Hope Greenland reverse it decision about the project.

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