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Sara Olsvig and the future of Greenland

Rising political star talks to The Arctic Journal about Greenland and the trials and tribulations of increasing autonomy
Olsvig aims to help Greenland in establishing new political alliances with the surrounding Arctic nations (Photo: Angu Motzfeldt)

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Sara Olsvig is in a rather unique position as a Greenlandic representative in the Danish parliament. Born in Nuuk and educated in Copenhagen, Olsvig is a relatively fresh face in government. She entered politics in 2011 and has since fast-tracked her political career in both Nordic nations. Just last month, she was named chair of parliament’s Arctic Committee. 

Ties with Denmark
Greenland and Demark have a historically complex relationship that has transformed dramatically over the past few decades. At present, Greenland is a self-governing country within the Kingdom of Denmark. First granted home rule in 1979, in 2011 it was granted self-rule and the right to overtake nearly all areas of government.

According to Olsvig, there is currently a solid political foundation between Copenhagen and Nuuk and she believes there is a healthy development towards the two members of the kingdom becoming more equal.

“The self-rule act is a framework that we have to develop, while at the same time maintaining the relationship between the two countries,” she said.

Olsvig plays a large role in maintaining and improving relations with Copenhagen. Her position allows her to closely follow issues, providing insight and guidance as one of Greenland’s two representatives in Copenhagen. Olsvig primarily focuses the legislative areas that still remain in Copenhagen’s hands, including defence, foreign affairs and internal security.

This task has become increasingly difficult as some of the most pressing developments in Greenland, most notably uranium exports and importing foreign labour to help build mines, are areas where Copenhagen holds final say. 

“These particular areas can generate many potential disputes between Greenland and Denmark,” she said. ”As two different countries that are bound together in different ways it’s important that we try to overcome challenges in a diplomatic and pragmatic manner.”

Establishing greater independence
In addition to its role seeing to the last vestiges of its control over Greenland, Copenhagen provides an annual block grant of approximately 3.2 billion Danish kroner ($580mn). Yet, as Greenland aims to build an economy based on its natural resources, the grant will gradually be diminished. But the path to financial independence is far from secure, and Olsvig says all opportunities should be thoroughly examined before any decisions are made.

A key career objective for Olsvig is to ensure the development of Greenland is done in a sensible and responsible manner and with consideration for the environment and Greenlandic culture. However, with investors knocking on Greenland’s door looking to, literally, dig into the island’s natural beauty, striking a balance between development and conservationism has been a hard one to strike.

READ MORE: Greenland failing to inform public about large projects

Olsvig, both professinally as a lawmaker and as a private citizen and Greenlandic lawmaker, advocates for sustainable development. She firmly believes in protecting the country’s environment as firms sweep in to exploit its vast untapped mineral wealth.

“We see and feel climate change in Greenland very clearly, there is no doubt that we must do all that we can to reduce emissions,” she said.

Vote ‘no’ to uranium exports
As climate change continues to melt ice caps, Greenland’s minerals have been attracting interest from all around the globe. Most notably, the issue of mining uranium has caused a significant divide not just among Greenlanders themselves, but also between Nuuk and Copenhagen. 

Greenland’s national assembly is looking to end the country’s 25-year ban on mining uranium in order to allow mining companies to extract rare earths, but Olsvig says she is firmly against doing so, for a multitude of reasons. She would prefer to explore other mining opportunities that pose fewer problems politically, environmentally and morally.

READ MORE: Greenland has the right to export Uranium, say lawyers

“We have a large amount of farming and agriculture and there would be serious consequences to these industries if we open mines nearby that were working with radioactive materials,” she said. ”What’s more, the international agreements that are in place to ensure that uranium should not be exported to certain places do not 100 percent prevent illegal trade with uranium.” 

Olsvig aims to play a significant role in helping to navigate Greenland through sustaining the natural environment, as well as taking advantage of economic opportunities that may aid her country in establishing greater sovereignty. But not at any cost.