Projects forge ahead with no land use plan or review boards

Greenland makes do with little land planning


Greenland's capital, Nuuk, a city with paved streets, traffic lights and sprawling apartment blocks, is home to 16,000 residents.

But despite its apparent physical advantages over Iqaluit, where unpaved streets still throw up clouds of dust, Greenland is still playing catch-up with respect to land use planning on the island.

At least, that's the impression given by Karl Georg Hansen, the chief land planner for Greenland's environment and nature department, who discussed his work at last week's climate change planning conference in Iqaluit.

For all its visible progress, Greenland, a Danish colony, makes do with less money than Nunavut. The money it receives as an annual transfer from Denmark – equal to about $700 million – for its population of 56,000 is less than the $1.1 billion that Ottawa gives Nunavut each year for its population of about 32,000.

And Greenland is still trying to overcome a legacy of long-distance land planning.

In 1972, it became apparent how little control Greenland had over its affairs when officials with the "Greenland Technical Operations" office decided to shut down the coal mining community of Qullissat on Disko Island and move its 1,200 residents to other communities.

"No one was forced to leave, but they closed the electricity and the school. People were free to stay if they wanted to," Hansen said.

But most left, and the social upheaval led to many problems during the following years.

The relocation also kick-started Greenland's independence movement, which resulted in its form of self-government, called "home rule," in 1978.

Despite home rule, Denmark handled all decision-making with respect to land planning until 1987.

Today, the Greenland government is still trying to devolve its land planning function to municipalities.

But a merger of its 18 regional municipalities into four, huge super-municipalities is now underway, and many other management obstacles, such as nepotism and political interference, often get in the way of land use planning.

For example, if a development project is in the national interest, such as the new aluminum smelter in Maniitsoq, "whether you like it or not it will be built," Hansen said.

Developing natural resources is now a government priority in Greenland, where residents will vote in November on a proposal for expanded self-government powers.

If the proposal is accepted, Greenland will acquire new powers next June 21.

Under the new plan, Greenland will have subsurface mineral rights, but a portion of future mineral revenues will be deducted from the block grant it gets from Denmark.

Meanwhile, there are no independent review boards in Greenland that can examine projects for their environmental impacts.

Hansen is in charge of the environmental review of the proposed smelter project, which will use Greenland's ample hydroelectric power to fuel the smelter.

To help with future land planning Greenland is developing its own national tools for land use.

It's jumped into virtual land planning through an on-line database called NunaGIS that integrates local knowledge about places, their residents and wildlife into digital maps.

At the same time, Hansen's department is lobbying Denmark, which is still responsible for mapping in Greenland, to update the often inaccurate maps done in the past.

Hansen was the sole Greenlander to make it to the Iqaluit conference on planning and climate change, because no one else in his department wanted to make the long trip via Europe to attend the meeting.

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