Image: A fisherman cuts bait in the town of Ilulissat in western Greenland
Bob Strong  /  Reuters
A fisherman cuts bait in the town of Ilulissat in western Greenland in this May 20, 2007 photo.
updated 11/24/2008 3:40:32 PM ET 2008-11-24T20:40:32

Dreaming of oil wealth, Greenland voters are expected to decide in a nonbinding referendum Tuesday to extend the island's self rule in what many see as a key step toward independence from Denmark.

Potential reserves of oil and minerals have increased hopes of independence though the small, mostly Inuit, population still grapples with social problems such as alcoholism and a high rate of suicide.

Under the plan, Greenland would get the first 75 million kroner ($12.6 million) of annual oil revenue. Any income beyond that amount would be shared equally between Greenland and Denmark.

Oil exploitation off Greenland, which started in 1971, has so far been unsuccessful.

"It is a precondition for Greenland's independence that we have our own income," said Lars-Emil Johansen, a former Greenland premier and member of a Danish-Greenlandic commission whose recommendations form the basis of the referendum. "The big money should come from the oil but who knows when that will be."

Greenland became a Danish colony in 1775 and remained that way until 1953, when Denmark revised its constitution and made the island a province until 1979. Under the 1979 Home Rule Act, Greenland has self-determination in health care, schools and social services.

Phasing out subsidies
The commission's recommendations are expected to be approved by a majority of Greenland's 39,000 voters. Although the referendum is nonbinding, its outcome is likely to be respected because Denmark supports greater autonomy for Greenland and a phase-out of subsidies.

Even if the referendum is successful, Greenland will keep the Danish currency and Denmark's figurehead monarch, Queen Margrethe, as head of state. Denmark also will continue to handle foreign policy and defense matters.

The commission suggested that decision-making powers be moved from Denmark to Greenland in 30 areas, including police and courts of law.

It also suggested a split of potential oil revenue with Denmark that would give Greenland most of the money in return for a phase-out of Danish subsidies, about 3.5 billion kroner ($588 million) a year — two-thirds of Greenland's economy.

Alcohol problem
Opponents say Greenland is too sparsely populated to effectively operate as an independent country. Only about 56,000 people live in an area three times the size of France.

Finn Lynge, a retired Greenland diplomat and prominent skeptic of the independence movement, said that is not enough to "staff all key functions in a modern society with competent people."

He also raised concerns about widespread alcohol abuse, which he said was weakening the fabric of Greenland's society. Greenlanders older than 15 drink an average of 11.6 liters (more than 12 quarts) of pure alcohol per year, the highest in the Nordic region, according to official health statistics.

"No one can build an independent state on heavy drinking," Lynge said by telephone from Narsaq, a southern Greenland town.

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