Debate about uranium mining in Greenland
Next week, Greenlandic and Danish environmental organizations will host a conference on uranium mining in Greenland. The half-day conference will take place in Copenhagen and aims at having a critical debate on the impacts of uranium mining in both Greenland and in the rest of the world. In October 2013, the Greenlandic parliament repealed a 25-year old zero-tolerance policy on uranium mining. According to the Danish Ecological Council, Greenland has the potential to become one of the world’s five biggest producers of Uranium in the coming years.
The decision to abandon the zero tolerance policy last year caused heated public debate in both Greenland and Denmark. Danish politicians mostly expressed concern about potential security issues, while parts of the Greenlandic population, of which around 90 % are indigenous Inuit, were worried about the potential consequences for their environment, livelihood and well-being. Criticism was also raised about the lack of proper consultations and involvement of the public in the decision-making. The conference on uranium mining in Greenland next week will be interesting for indigenous peoples all over the world, not least because Greenland with its extended self-government poses a unique case from an indigenous perspective. Uranium mining around the world: A question of rights Uranium mining is not only an issue of the environment, income generation and security. In many parts of the world, it is also a question of the human rights of indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples’ lands are among the richest in natural resources and therefore attractive for extractive industry. Extraction of resources such as uranium threatens to destroy the homelands of indigenous peoples in some of the world’s most vulnerable ecosystems. Indigenous peoples are culturally, spiritually, and economically interlinked with their lands and natural resources, and environmental degradation has therefore far reaching consequences for their survival as peoples. Enshrined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of indigenous Peoples are indigenous peoples’ rights to determine and develop priorities and strategies for the development or use of their lands or territories or other resources (art. 32.1); and to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent before legislative measures that may affect them are adopted by States (art. 19); before approval of any projects affecting their lands or territories or other resources (art. 32.2); and before the storage or disposal of hazardous materials on their lands or territories (art.29.2). Uranium mining leaves a toxic legacy on indigenous peoples’ lands A recent article on the struggle of the Navajo Indians to stop the reopening of a uranium mine close to Grand Canyon shows how Uranium mining can pose a grave danger to indigenous peoples’ rights to land, natural resources and health. The Diné (Navajo) lands in the northern part of Arizona, USA, are filled with abandoned uranium mines constructed from 1944 to 1986. Waste from the mines has never been properly disposed of and today tailings of toxic dirt are scattered on the lands where indigenous peoples live. Radioactive waste has caused spikes in cancer rates. In the words of Klee Benally, a Diné activist: “It is really a slow genocide of the people, not just indigenous people of this region, but it’s estimated that there are over 10 million people who are residing within 50 miles of abandoned uranium mines.” In 2012, a ban on new mining in the Grand Canyon’s watersheds came into effect; however this ban did not include reopening old mines built in the 1980s. Already three mines have been reopened, and in 2013 the company Energy Fuels and Resources was granted federal approval to reopen a mine on the ancestral lands of the Diné. Indigenous peoples and environmentalists have united to protest this decision as reopening of the mine will add strain to scarce water sources in the desert area and pollution of what little water is available to the lists of effects of uranium mining. The conference in Copenhagen is organized by the Danish Ecological Council, the NGO Sustainable Energy, NOAH (Friends of the Earth Denmark) and the Greenlandic organization Avataq.