How much division should a mining project be allowed to sow?

Mining, Kuannersuit near Narsaq, Anne Merrild Hansen of Ilisimatusarfik, Arctic Hub, research, Greenland, Grønland, science, videnskab

Mining projects in Greenland can have negative consequences for the locals, even before actual work begins. Researchers suggest screening projects before the companies submit their applications. But sometimes it’s asking for trouble to contribute with professional input to these often very emotional mining debates in Greenland.


By Uffe Wilken, Polarfronten


In connection with the construction of a mine in Kuannersuit near Narsaq in southern Greenland, a series of public meetings have been held over the past 20 years where citizens have been able to question ministers, authorities, and mining companies. The intention is to extract rare earth elements, but a by-product of this process is uranium extraction. In one of the meetings, a woman got up and asked the panel: “Would you like to live in Narsaq, if the mine becomes reality?”


The question serves as a clear expression of the concern that prevails in any local community facing big construction projects. Projects make their impact on the community long before the groundbreaking may or may not happen. Professor Anne Merrild Hansen of Ilisimatusarfik – University of Greenland and Aalborg University, who was born and raised in Narsaq, understands why the woman would ask such a question. She would welcome a change, so this kind of concern can be addressed as early as possible in the planning process. She explains:


“We’ve been dealing with the environment for many years, and we know it well. That’s why we have limit values for what we can accept and not accept. But there are no limit values on social matters, which is why it’s difficult to argue for rejecting an initiative on the grounds that it will have a significant negative impact on the local community.”


That is why, Anne Merrild Hansen and other researchers suggest to carry out project screenings as early as possible, to check if there are any “no-go factors” i.e, factors that can give a clue as to whether the project will obtain the necessary permits before it starts.

Wanted: Social limit values

For many years, it’s been statutory to carry out an environmental assessment before commencing major construction projects. This assessment is part of the informed basis on which decisions are made. Throughout the last roughly 20 years, a similar tool – the Danish Assessment of Social Sustainability tool (VSB) – has gained more and more ground as an important element on an equal footing with environmental assessments.


Anne Merrild Hansen is well aware that social matters are much more difficult to handle than environmental matters. Partly because it is difficult to set up any hardcore parameters, since no one openly wishes to set limit values on how many people may die in mining accidents, or how many unwanted pregnancies may occur in the local community. And partly because it is quite unusual to think along these social lines. But the social aspect is becoming more important, and as Anne Merrild Hansen explains:


“Investigation into mining in Narsaq has been carried out since the early 2000s – and a VSB hasn’t been done until now. The VSB seeks to explain what will happen if the mine becomes a reality. But we have already seen consequences. From the moment the investigation began, people started considering their lives and decide whether to maintain their houses or not, or if they even want to remain a part of the local community in Narsaq. A lot of initiative stalls because people are waiting to see what is going to happen to their future, and what conditions they will have to abide by. In our investigation, we state that social factors need to be considered at a much earlier stage – before doing a VSB. It’s hard to demand a VSB when the mining company doesn’t even know if it wants a mine. And that’s where our screening tool comes in handy.”

No-go factors impede the process

The researchers suggest that before engaging in expensive environmental and social impact assessments, the mining companies should screen the local community for no-go factors i.e., factors that can halt their projects.


As a reference tool, the researchers use UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a declaration that is recognized both by the mining industry and several financial institutions. The declaration mentions the right to housing, adequate food, clothing and to continuous improvement of the standard of living. Depriving people of the right to proper water supply is mentioned as an example. It would go against the right to an adequate standard of living – especially for farmers and remote villages with no alternative water supply options. Should a village be deprived of the possibility to secure water supply due to a project, it would be tantamount to depriving the village of its basic human rights and, thus, it would be a social no-go factor.


Anne Merrild Hansen hopes that they can help start a discussion among researchers, mining companies and authorities about how to involve a larger part of the social dimension when large mining projects come knocking – not least because the global green transition demands that we explore more natural resources in the coming years.


When contributing professional knowledge in a sometimes very emotional debate you need to be able to take a beating, and sometimes you have to bite your tongue more than usual. Anne Merrild Hansen explains how she positions herself in these heated debates:


“I try not to be the ambassador for anyone in particular – at least, I try not to be ambassador for the mining companies. Perhaps I aim to be ambassador for the people. I’m not a politician, so I don’t decide whether the projects are good for Greenland or not.


I’m here to let people know what knowledge we need to acquire to be able to make informed decisions and to secure that the projects will benefit Greenland.


I see myself as an agent of change, someone who works to change things to the better without picking sides.”


“And yes, I’ve taken some verbal hits… During the election, I spoke to the media, and thought I was being critical while making sure to highlight how some things regarding the societally sustainable were working while others were not. In short, I tried to be objective. But looking at the commentary on KNR’s article I saw people writing: ‘That Danish professor sure has some guts! She’s not welcome in Greenland. She’s way too positive and running the mining companies’ errands.’ Others wrote: ‘She’s just trying to get people to react and turn against the project.’ The fact that I was trying to remain neutral was perceived as being both for and against at the same time – so basically everybody was mad at me.”


Contact: Anne Merrild Hansen


This article is part of a theme issue of Polarfronten about Arctic Hub. The issue has been made as a collaboration between Arctic Hub and Polarfronten.



Aaen, Merrild Hansen & Kladis: Social no-go factors in mine site selection. The Extractive Industries and Society 8, 2021.