In the small town of Aasiaat in Western Greenland, the sleigh dogs are becoming restless and fewer in numbers. Located on one of the many islands at the edge of the picturesque Disco Bay, the dogs have played an important role in hunting and transportation, crossing fjords and rivers throughout the winter. But now, except for small icebergs here and there, the waters around the city are completely ice-free.

I’m travelling down the west coast of this amazing country from Aasiaat all the way to the Southern tip in Qaqortoq with the main purpose of meeting and engaging with students at the four Greenlandic high schools. It’s basically me talking a lot about oil exploration, environmental standards, mining and sustainable fisheries. And them asking tons of both curious and opinionated questions.

Indigenous youth outreach tour © Greenpeace

“Where will our development come from?” is one of the most frequent questions. The students, in various ways, express a strong wish for development, but also share concerns over the threat of pollution and the lack of transparency in the decision making of the current government. And those concerns are more than understandable.

For what kind of development will Greenland see? The country, which is roughly the size of Western Europe, is rich on resources — both renewable and non-renewable. Development could either respect the unique beauty and nature of Greenland, or all but destroy it.

There is immense pressure here from international oil companies, who see the melting ice as a business opportunity, and mining companies, whose main goal seems to be to erode all environmental standards.

The question is, will the politicians and administration be able to withstand the pressure? Will they include the wishes of the next generation that envisions a greener energy economy? Or will they allow international companies with grim track records to dictate the future of Greenland?

Indigenous youth outreach tour © Greenpeace

The former and current government has unfortunately both leaned towards the latter and neither has respected the environment or common rules for inclusion and openness. But in the last six months, the debate in Greenland has started to change, as protests against the government’s gung-ho approach are increasing. Just in the last couple of months, the largest demonstration in the entire history of Greenland took place against the government’s revocation of the zero-tolerance rule on uranium mining, and a coalition of Greenlandic NGOs have boycotted a hearing process on a rare earth minerals mine as a protest over the undemocratic process. The people are claiming influence of their leaders.

Greenpeace has an important role to play in this battlefield. Greenland might be big in size, but it is small in many other ways. For example, the body responsible for the environmental aspects of all large-scale oil- and mineral projects only consists of two people. These two people have to withstand the pressure of companies such as Shell, BP and London Mining, and need to juggle issues as diverse as drilling in icy waters, uranium mining and seismic testing.

Without a strong civil society presence, I fear that the administration will succumb to corporate pressure. Greenpeace is one of the few organizations with the capacity to battle these companies, and to protect the Arctic from their reckless behavior. And this trip once again confirms the need to act and of course continue to strengthen our dialogue with the few existing green Greenlandic NGO’s and interest groups. 

Unfortunately Greenpeace’s history in Greenland has created a lot of distrust for many people here. The campaign against the Canadian industrial seal hunt in the seventies and eighties didn’t properly distinguish between large-scale industrial sealing and the sustainable, Indigenous hunt, and thus had a profound and negative effect on the Greenlandic sustainable seal hunt. Since then, Greenpeace has apologised on many occasions for the unintended consequences of the campaign for Greenland and others, and today unequivocally support the right of Greenlanders and Indigenous Peoples everywhere to their sustainable seal hunt. But the wounds still need mending.

That is one of the reasons why I am travelling around to the high schools of Greenland. To explain that Greenpeace today is a different organisation and that we have a joint interest in securing the sustainable development of Greenland. And meeting the young generations here, I do get a clear sense of optimism, a feeling that they will lead this country forward with fortitude and with the fullest respect and awareness of the forces they are up against if they are to find sustainable solutions for one of the most unique environments this planet has to offer.

There is so much reason to hope for a better future in this magnificent country, and hopefully this trip is a step towards mending old wounds, so that Greenland and Greenpeace can stand together in the common struggle for sustainable development ­— not only in Greenland, but across the Arctic.

Jon Burgwald is an Arctic campaigner for Greenpeace Nordic.