• Indigenous peoples in Greenland

    Indigenous peoples in Greenland

    The indigenous peoples of Greenland are Inuit and make up a majority of the Greenlandic population. Greenland is a self-governing country within the Danish Realm, and although Denmark has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Greenland’s population continue to face challenges.
  • Peoples

    50,000 out of Greenland’s 56,000 peoples are Inuit
  • Rights

    2007: Denmark adopts the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
  • Children's rights

    2010: The Government of Greenland and UNICEF Denmark enter into a partnership agreement to raise awareness of children's rights in Greenland
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  • Indigenous World 2019: Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland)

Indigenous World 2019: Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland)

Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland) has been, since 1979, a self-governing country within the Danish Realm. The population is composed of 89.6 % Greenlandic Inuit out of a total of 57,691 of inhabitants (July 2018 est.). The majority of Greenlandic Inuit refer to themselves as Kalaallit.

Ethnographically, they consist of three major groups: the Kalaallit of West Greenland, who speak Kalaallisut; the Tunumiit of Tunu (East Greenland), who speak Tunumiit oraasiat (East Greenlandic) and the Inughuit / Avanersuarmiut of the north. The majority of the people of Greenland speak the Inuit language, Kalaallisut, which is the official language, while the second language of the country is Danish.

Greenland’s diverse culture includes subsistence hunting, commercial fisheries, tourism and emerging efforts to develop the oil and mining industries. Approximately 50% of the national budget is financed by Denmark through a block grant. In 2009, Greenland entered into a new era with the inauguration of its Act on Self-Government, which gave the country further self-determination within the Kingdom of Denmark. Together with the Danish Constitution, the Self-Government Actarticulates Greenland’s constitutional position in the Kingdom of Denmark. The Self-Government Act recognizes the Greenlandic people as a people under international law with the right to self-determination. Greenland has a public government and it aims to establish a sustainable economy in order to achieve greater independence.

Greenland’s self-government consists of the Inatsisartut (Parliament), which is the elected legislature, and the Naalakkersuisut (Government), which is responsible for the overall public administration, thereby forming the executive branch. The Inatsisartut has 31 elected members. The Government of Greenland adopted the UNDRIP upon its ratification in 2007 and subsequent governments have committed to its implementation. Greenland and Denmark jointly prepare reports regarding good practice on implementation of indigenous peoples’ rights, as described in UNDRIP and other international rights and human rights instruments. The government of Greenland had a decisive influence on the Kingdom of Denmark’s ratification of ILO Convention 169 in 1996, as Greenland has prioritized actions to establish the indigenous peoples’ collective rights to land and resources in their territories.


General elections

On 24 April 2018, general elections were held for the seats of the 31 members of Inatsisartut (the Greenlandic parliament). According to the law on Inatsisartut and Naalakkersuisut (Government of Greenland) the Premier is required to call elections prior to the end of the 4-year election period.1 Premier Kim Kielsen chose to call the elections seven months early. In the election, 29,294 out of 40,769 voters cast a vote and gave a narrow victory to the largest party, Siumut. The two biggest parties, Siumut and Inuit Ataqatigiit, lost two and three seats respectively while the smaller Democrats and Partii Naleraq gained seats. The newly formed Samarbejdspartiet (Cooperation Party) and Nunatta Qitornai (the Descendants of Our Country) both entered Inatsisartut.2 There are a total of six political parties in Inatisartut, besides the above mentioned this includes Partii Naleraq (Point of Orientation Party) and Atassut (Solidarity).

After the election, the Greenlandic government was formed by a coalition of Siumut, Atassut, Partii Naleraq and Nunatta Qitornai. Partii Naleraq left the coalition in September while the other parties remained in the Coalition and formed a Minority Government with the support of the Democrats.

Changes in legislation

Due to the elections Inatsisartut only held one of its usual two assemblies in 2018. The most disputed legislation during the assembly was the legislation on the framework conditions for construction, operation and financing of the planned international airport in the capital, Nuuk, and in Ilulissat as well as a regional airport in Qaqortoq.3 The main discussions evolved on whether public finances should be prioritized for building airports or other projects in the communities, for example to tackle social problems, what cities should be prioritized for building airports and the length of the landing strips. Albeit the legislation is not strictly related to indigenous rights, this has been a major decision for the future development for the country.

Furthermore, the financing of the airports are strongly related to an ongoing discussion about international financing and loan taking. In September 2018 the Danish and Greenlandic governments signed an agreement for Denmark to invest 700 million Danish kroner ($109 million) for a 33 % stake in Kalaallit Airports, the government-owned company set up to build, own and operate the new airports in Nuuk and Ilulissat.4 Danish involvement in the airport project was the main reason that Partii Naleraq left the coalition. They commented that it posed questions about the Kalaallits’ ability to do something on their own when the Danish State intervened in the project. They did not wish to participate in a development that undermined their goal for Greenlandic independence.5

Climate change

The consequences of climate change are increasingly affecting indigenous peoples living in close relation to their lands and natural resources. The Inuit cultures rely on the land and sea and the sustainability of the Arctic environment and its living resources is crucial for communities in Greenland. Shrinking sea ice, which is used as essential transportation routes during winter, is a prime example. Sea ice coverage in 2018 was reported at a historical low, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center.6

The Greenlandic economy fundamentally depends on fisheries; the industry is responsible for more than 85% of the country’s export. Climate Greenland, the Government of Greenland’s website about climate change in Greenland, summarizes some of the areas where a changing climate is expected to impact fisheries: Shrimp fisheries are expected to be highly impacted, leading to a decline in the total amount of shrimp produced. The main reason for this decline, is that higher sea temperatures lead to an increase in cod, which feed on the shrimp.7 The changing climate also spurs increased access to industrial development, such as mining, oil and gas extraction, some types of fisheries and shipping. 

International fisheries agreement concerning the Central Arctic Ocean

On 3 October 2018 the Greenlandic Minister for Fisheries, Hunting and Agriculture hosted a ceremony to sign an Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean. Parties of the agreement are Canada, the United States of America, the Russian Federation, the Kingdom of Norway, the Kingdom of Denmark (including the Faroe Islands and Greenland), Iceland, the European Union, the Republic of Korea, Japan and the People’s Republic of China. By signing the Agreement, all parties have taken responsibility to engage in the future scientific cooperation and to work towards a future sustainable fishery management in the Central Arctic Ocean.8 The agreement recalls the UNDRIP, recognizing the interests of:

(…) Arctic indigenous peoples, in the long-term conservation and sustainable use of living marine resources and in healthy marine ecosystems in the Arctic Ocean and underlining the importance of involving them and their communities; and desiring to promote the use of both scientific knowledge and indigenous and local knowledge of the living marine resources of the Arctic Ocean and the ecosystems in which they occur as a basis for fisheries conservation and management in the high seas portion of the central Arctic Ocean.9

The Agreement underlines the importance of including indigenous and local peoples’ knowledge to ensure that it is used as a primary source together with scientific knowledge.

Ilulissat Declaration 10 years anniversary

During the course of 2018, Greenland celebrated the 10 year anniversary of the Ilulissat Declaration of the five coastal Arctic states. These include Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark, Norway, Russia and USA. One of the chief goals of the declaration was to avoid a new international legal regime that would govern the Arctic Ocean and an agreement to settle any possible overlapping claims according to international law.10 The signing of the Ilulissat Declaration by only five Arctic coastal states (A5) was controversial and met resistance from indigenous actors, NGOs, the EU, and non-coastal states. These groups were not invited to be part of the Declaration and expressed that the A5 would undermine existing regional institutions, such as the Arctic Council.11 In the 2018 commemoration, indigenous peoples representatives were invited, together with the Arctic Council countries. This was a welcomed initiative and some indigenous peoples used the opportunity to raise awareness of the risk of undermining indigenous peoples due to the increased attention to the Arctic’s economic potential.12


There is an increased interest in exploring natural resources in Greenland. Currently, there are six exploitation licenses, 61 exploration licenses, nine prospecting licenses, and 56 small-scale licenses around the country. Hudson Greenland A/S started its activities at the anorthosite mine in Kangerlussuaq. The anorthosite mine is one of two actively producing mines, the other one being the ruby mine in Qeqertarsuatsiaat.13 Mining activities mean both more jobs and more raw materials that provide income for the national treasury. The activities have, however, also spurred a great amount of controversy nationally, as well as with Denmark and even internationally.

In Narsaq, in Southern Greenland, the Rare Earth Elements (REE) project by the Australian-based Greenland Minerals and Energy (GME) is of great local concern due to the environmental consequences of the potential open-pit mine. The Narsaq area is known for sheep farming, cattle ranching and agriculture. One of the challenges with the mine would be how to manage the tailings and the radioactive water the concern being that the waste products will end up in the river and the town. To others, however, the mine represents the prospect of new jobs and much-needed development. For Denmark, and internationally, the main concern seems to be the 12.5 % Chinese ownership of the mine, and how this could have geopolitical implications. Naalakkersuisut expects several similar activities going forward, based on a positive international market for supply and demand for minerals.

Report from UN special rapporteur on hazardous waste

In September 2018 the UN Special Rapporteur on hazardous substances and wastes published his report on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes on his mission to Denmark and Greenland. Issues regarding the clean up after the military presence of the United States in Greenland was the main reason for the visit. In the report the Rapporteur underlined that:

The total exclusion of the local population in past decisions over the US military presence in Greenland has fueled serious tensions and resulted in recognized past violations, such as the removal of the population originally living in the area where Thule Airbase was built. […] Still today, the lack of transparency by US forces on the nature of all hazardous materials deployed in Greenland is a source of concern.14

The Rapporteur underlined the injustice done to communities in Greenland and the Arctic through the contamination of the natural resources on which the Inuit depend by pollutants from foreign sources. The report highlighted that with the increase in autonomy, concerns about the management of wastes and hazardous substances have emerged. As Greenland has a small population and a vast territory it poses significant challenges for authorities. The reports underlines that due to its vulnerability to pollution originating in other parts of the world, Greenland needs to have its voice heard by the international community when solutions to major environmental concerns are being sought.15

The ICC General Assembly

The Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) is an international indigenous peoples’ organization representing approximately 160,000 Inuit living in the Arctic regions of Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Chukotka, Russia. ICC is the only indigenous peoples’ organization in Greenland and participates in national, as well as international, hearings and consultations on indigenous peoples’ rights as well as representing Inuit in international fora. ICC Greenland monitors developments nationally that can have implications on indigenous peoples’ rights. The Utqiaġvik Declaration, adopted by ICC during its 2018 General assembly in Alaska, underlines, inter alia, the need to support responsible mining policies; the need to utilize indigenous knowledge to advise all future processes of the Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean and the need to explore and pursue potential for mapping Inuit sea ice and coastal sea use and the multiple dimensions of the use of the sea ice in the Arctic. The Declaration reflects ICC’s actions and priorities for the next four years. This provides an insight to the expected focus areas for the Inuit in Greenland.

International cooperation and coordination of inclusive engagement in international fora, including the UN, is one of these focus areas. The international community and international legislation have a direct effect on the Inuit communities and ICC recognizes a necessity to improve their capacity to fully engage in this work, such as the Arctic Council.16 Other issues include health, food security and suicide. Men and women born in Greenland have shorter life expectancies than the average in the western world, primarily due to a high mortality rate caused by accidents and suicide. Out of 435 deaths, 32 were suicides in 201517 and a comparison of the population suicide rates published by Statistics Greenland in 2011 greatly exceed those published by the World Health Organisation for Guyana, the country with the highest population suicide rates internationally that year.18 Suicide thus continues to be an extreme challenge for Inuit society.

Notes and references

  1. Inatsisartutlov om Inatsisartut og Naalakkersuisut, para 26, compiled April 2018.
  2. Parliament Election 2018, Available at: http://bit.ly/2TeJwbK
  3. Inatsisartutlov nr. 4 af 22. November 2018 om rammebetingelser for anlæg, drift og finansiering af international lufthavn i Nuuk og i Ilulissat samt regional lufthavn i Qaqortoq. Available at: http://bit.ly/2TaR5jI
  4. Aftale mellem regeringen og Naalakkersuisut om dansk engagement i lufthavnsprojektet i Grønland og styrket erhvervssamarbejde mellem Danmark og Grønland, Nuuk, 10 September 2018. Available at: http://bit.ly/2TaQxdE  See KAIR, at: http://bit.ly/2TatC2a 
  5. Partii Naleraq har forladt koalitionen, KNR, 9 September 2018, Available at: http://bit.ly/2T9Eai5 
  6. Arctic Sea Ice News and Analysis, Available at: http://bit.ly/2TeJO2u 
  7. Fisheries, Climate Greenland, Available at: http://bit.ly/2T9DSrv 
  8. Arctic Agreement Signed in Greenland, October 2018, Naalakkersuisut, Available at: http://bit.ly/2TbniY9 
  9. Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean, preamble, October 2018
  10. Ilulissat Declaration, Ilulissat, 28 May 2008
  11. Learning from the Ilulissat Initiative State Power, Institutional Legitimacy, and Governance in the Arctic Ocean 2007-18, Jon Rahbek-Clemmensen & Gry Thomasen, University of Copenhagen Centre for Military Studies, February 2018
  12. Statement Ilulissat, Saami Council, 13 Juni 2018 Available at: http://bit.ly/2TbmZfX 
  13. Grønland har nu to aktive miner i production, Naalakkersuisut, 6 December 2018, accessed at: http://bit.ly/2TzkSly 
  14. Chinese investments in Greenland raise US concerns, Hans Lucht, 20 November 2018, accessed at: http://bit.ly/2TzW10W 
  15. Ibidem.
  16. Grønland har nu to aktive miner i production, Op. Cit.
  17. See OHCHR, “Denmark must extend toxic substance protection standards beyond its borders” Available at: http://bit.ly/2TeEI64 
  18. See A/HRC/39/48/Add.2, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes on his mission to Denmark and Greenland.” 10 September 2018. Available at: http://bit.ly/2TaPSca 


This article has been elaborated by the editorial staff at IWGIA.



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

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