- The Washington Times - Monday, June 22, 2009

NUUK, Greenland — The world’s largest island, Greenland, took a step toward becoming an independent country on Sunday by formally taking over responsibility for its internal affairs — including control over what are thought to be substantial oil reserves — from Denmark, which colonized it nearly 300 years ago.

At a ceremony in Greenland’s capital, Nuuk, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, wearing the traditional Greenlandic costume of a multicolored, beaded top over sealskin pants and boots, handed over the Act on Greenland Self Government to the head of Greenland’s Parliament, Jozef Motzfeldt.

Greenland already has exercised some autonomy, beginning in 1979, when it first gained “home rule” from Denmark. But some key government responsibilities, including the justice system and control over the country’s mineral and petroleum resources, remained under Danish control or influence. Greenland now takes over those rights.

In addition, Greenlandic (closely related to the language spoken by Inuit in Canada) will be the sole official language.

Self-government is “a symbol of the dreams of the Greenlandic people,” Mr. Motzfeldt said at the ceremony. “We have achieved the right of control of our subsoil, and we expect in the years to come that this will be a supplement to lay the foundation for an economically independent Greenland.”

Serious oil exploration has only recently begun off Greenland’s coast, aided in part by the melting of the sea ice due to global warming. Oil has not been found, but estimates, including those of the U.S. Geological Survey, suggest that Greenland could have about 50 billion barrels of oil.

Greenland’s population is 56,000, so if the oil estimates prove correct, the island would control nearly 1 million barrels of oil per person. It would be a staggering leap for a people who, until World War II, were subsisting almost entirely as seal hunters and fishermen.

Today, Greenland has limited economic options, and commercial shrimping accounts for the bulk of its exports.

Denmark currently provides a large subsidy to Greenland’s government — about $700 million this year or more than $10,000 for every person in Greenland. The subsidy makes up about 60 percent of the government budget.

But when and if oil revenues start to come in, Denmark will reduce the subsidy accordingly. When the subsidy is fully paid off, Greenland officials say, they will begin to seriously discuss the possibility of becoming an independent country.

Denmark, which had to approve the self-government act and would also have to approve independence for Greenland, has not objected.

“For several hundred years, we’ve had a strong relationship between Greenland and Denmark, and we’re looking forward to continuing that relationship,” said Lars Lokke Rasmussen, Denmark’s prime minister, in a press conference after the ceremony. “The question of independence is not the issue today, but it is totally up to the Greenlandic people.”

Greenland hosts a large U.S. radar facility at Thule, built during the Cold War as part of the early-warning radar system and recently upgraded as part of the national missile-defense program. Some Greenlanders have objected to the presence of the air base, suggesting it could make Greenland a target.

The status of the air base should not change as a result of self-government, said Greenland Prime Minister Kuupik Kleist.

“We’ve had a long relationship with the United States, sometimes troublesome, but we’ve renewed our agreement between Denmark, the United States and Greenland, and it is a positive one,” he said. “We will look forward to developing this agreement further.”

The impact of global warming has been felt in Greenland more than almost anywhere else on Earth, but the reaction has been mixed. Greenland’s political leaders refer to the climate change as both a threat and an opportunity.

In the north, where the economy is still based largely on subsistence hunting and fishing, people have suffered because the warming climate has shortened the winter hunting season, when hard ice is needed for dog sleds. Animals’ traditional migration patterns also have been altered.

But in southern Greenland, the agricultural growing season is getting easier, and the government is experimenting with new crops such as turnips, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce and strawberries.

Global warming also has helped spur the potential oil boom in Greenland — and as a result, the drive for independence — by melting the sea ice that used to make it treacherous to prospect off the coast. It has also opened up possibilities for mining.

One lead and zinc mine in northern Greenland was exposed by a retreating glacier, and another on the northern coast only recently has become reachable by ship.

Greenland’s government adopted self-governance after 76 percent of Greenland’s voters approved the plan a referendum in November 2008.

The recent election of a new, younger government has bolstered enthusiasm for self-government. A single party, Siumut, had held power for 30 years, and had suffered through corruption scandals and widespread cronyism. But in parliamentary elections earlier this month, Siumut was voted out.

The new government, controlled by the Socialist Inuit Ataqatigiit party, has several ministers in their 20s and 30s. Several Greenlanders interviewed in Nuuk said the excitement over the new government made self-government all the sweeter, comparing it to glasnost at the end of the Soviet Union or the election of Barack Obama in the United States.

“I voted ‘no’ [on the referendum] because I didn’t like the deal and I didn’t like the politicians who were in charge. I thought that things won’t get better with self-rule. But now that we got a new Parliament, I’m really happy,” said Maria Paninguak Kjaerulff, a painter in Nuuk who recently graduated from college. “You know how when Obama was elected, you couldn’t quite believe it? It’s the same way here. There’s just a really good energy in the society now.”

Many Greenlanders spoke of the pride of working to get free of the Danish subsidy, which pro-self-government campaigners called a “pillow,” allowing Greenlanders to rest rather than working to build their country up.

“People will have to be responsible for their own situation now,” said Mette Krinstensen, a clothing designer. “People blame everything on this - ‘I drink, but it’s because we were a colony for so long.’ It’s a crutch we’ve been relying on too long. If you’re independent you have to solve your problems yourself.”

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