Greenland: Further cracks in ties with Denmark?
By Sarah Lyall Published: November 24, 2008
LONDON: Greenland, the world's largest island, is to vote Tuesday on whether it wants greater independence from Denmark, which colonized it nearly 300 years ago.
Greenland - 2,200,000 square kilometers, or 850,000 square miles, some 80 percent of which is covered by ice - has steadily been gaining more autonomy for decades and has had its own home-rule government since 1979. But it still depends on Denmark for much of its budget and is bound by Danish decisions in a variety of policy areas.
If it passes, the referendum on Tuesday will pave the way for Greenland's eventual independence from Denmark. The measure would allow Greenlanders to be recognized as a separate people under international law; make the Eskimo-Inuit tongue known as Greenlandic the island's official language; and give the home-rule government the option of taking more responsibility over areas like justice, defense and foreign affairs.
Perhaps more importantly, a "yes" vote would allow Greenland the opportunity to wean itself from its annual grant of $550 million by giving it control of the revenues from potential oil, gas and mineral finds. Experts say that huge quantities of natural resources are lurking offshore and under Greenland's melting ice cap, but it remains to be seen exactly what is there and how much it is worth.
Native Greenlanders have been talking about independence for years, but not until now has the island felt emboldened to take the next step toward it.
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"The future of Greenland is being strengthened a lot with this," said Hans Jakob Helms, political adviser to Lars Emil Johansen, one of two Greenlandic members of the Danish Parliament. "This allows the Greenlandic people to decide themselves if, at a later date, they want independence."
Greenland has come a long way economically in the last few decades. But while 60 percent of its people live in the six largest towns, the rest live in more than 120 isolated, austere settlements and trading posts that have perhaps one store apiece and few job opportunities.
Outside the towns, people make their living by hunting and fishing. There is no national road network, and people rely on boats and planes to travel - weather permitting - from one area to another. Besides several dialects of Greenlandic, English and Danish is spoken.
Greenlanders stress that it may be several decades before Greenland is able to declare complete independence from Denmark but said that the vote was the next step in a long evolution toward that goal.
"Home rule was a compromise," Helms said. "It's a simple fact that home rule has reached its limit and there's a need for more room for self-government."