A local election in Greenland, scheduled for Tuesday (6), is attracting the attention of the governments of the United States, China and the European Union, because its result could extend or block Chinese influence in the region.
Less than 60,000 people live on the largest island in the world, and it is this population, who would not fill a stadium like Mineirão, who will decide at the polls whether or not to continue two projects for the extraction of so-called rare earths. (group of 17 metals) abundant in the earth’s crust, but difficult and expensive to obtain). One of the projects is being carried out with the support of China.
An area in the south of the island is home to the largest untapped reserve of these materials, according to the United States Geological Department. The demand for them has increased in recent years, due to the application of super strong magnets, which are used in equipment such as wind turbines, electric car motors and computers – in addition to the construction industry. war.
As the United States, Europe and China increase their fleets of electric cars, the demand for these items increases.
“The price of neodymium, the most widely used element of rare earths, doubled between May 2020 and January 2021, but it has already started to fall”, explains Fernando Landgraf, coordinator of the INCT (National Institute of Science and Technology ) Terras Raras and professor at USP.
He explains that the rise was driven by fears of a conflict between China and the United States, which could cause the Asian country to limit exports of the product – the Chinese provide around 90% of the world’s supply and are said to have the power to stop the expansion of competitors in new technologies simply by delaying deliveries.
There are reserves of rare earths in many parts of the world, including Brazil, but their extraction is complex. First, by generating a large amount of waste. “Typically between 3% and 4% of useful material is mined, and 96% of what has been mined is thrown away,” says Landgraf.
Another problem: it is common to find rare earths with radioactive material, which worries those who live near future mines.
One of the projects in Greenland, called Kvanefjeld, plans to generate 8,500 tonnes of tailings per day, which will be dumped into a lake, to be protected by a concrete dam. But barriers can be broken, as the Brazilian cases of Mariana and Brumadinho show, and the 1,500 inhabitants of Narsaq, close to the reserves, are on alert.
Kvanefjeld intends to mine uranium, a radioactive material, which has heightened local concerns. Many are talking about leaving the city if the project continues. In February, there were protests at a hearing on the subject. During a meeting, residents knocked on windows and put on loud music to disrupt the performances.
The acts generated a political crisis which anticipated the elections. Greenland went to the polls in November, but there was no consensus to form a government. Siumut, the most voted Social Democratic Party in this election, has ruled the region almost continuously since 1979 and supports the advancement of mining.
However, polls show the leftist, environmentalist and AI party is expected to be voted the most on Tuesday. The legend is opposed to the Kvanefjeld project, but it is more sympathetic to another exploration plan, called Tanbreez, which has no intention of removing uranium. In all, 7 parties are vying for the 31 seats in the local parliament.
“We must say no to the mine and allow us to develop our country in our own way. In Greenland, we look fresh, we live in harmony with nature and we will not contaminate it,” said MP Mariane Paviasen. , AI. , who lives in Narsaq., to the AFP news agency.
On the other hand, Siumut stresses that a breakthrough in mining can increase tax collection and develop the local economy. It would also allow Greenland to become an independent country, a point defended by both parties. Today it is a semi-autonomous region of Denmark. About a third of the resources come from there to maintain the Greenlandic government.
The Kvanefjeld alone would bring in more than $ 200 million in annual royalties, which would generate a 7% increase in Greenland’s GDP, compared to around $ 3 billion per year. Today, the local economy relies heavily on fishing, which can be damaged if the waters are polluted by mining.
Currently, the government of Greenland has the autonomy to initiate extraction projects, but issues such as foreign affairs and defense are under the command of Copenhagen.
The two projects under discussion on the island are led by Australian companies, although the company that works in Kvanefjeld has a Chinese state-owned company as a partner.
The arrival of a Chinese mining company allows Beijing to invest in other structures in Greenland as well, such as roads and airports. This would increase its presence at a strategic point between North America and Europe.
“We are no longer living in colonial times, when Chinese squadrons would come in and take over territory. Domination is achieved little by little, through the action of companies and soft power strategies, ”explains Leandro Consentino, professor of political science at Insper.
With an eye on this Chinese breakthrough on rare earths, Joe Biden’s administration decided in February that the US government reconsider its international policy on the issue. The State Department urged allied countries to “carefully consider any investment” that could give China control of important infrastructure or influence national economies.
In 2019, then-President Donald Trump expressed interest in buying Greenland for the United States, but Denmark rejected the idea. Despite the refusal, Copenhagen and Washington are allies and the Americans have a military base on the island.
Last year, the European Union, which includes Denmark, launched a program to increase its capacity to extract and process rare earths, with the aim of reducing its dependence on China.
Because it is a sum of several different elements, rare earths have a high cost of separating metals after extraction. “The goal is to be able to do it to compete with the Chinese price,” said Landgraf.
The professor believes that even if projects in Greenland are approved, pressure from environmentalists can delay the start of mining for years. With this, the theme can continue to influence local politics for a long time.