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Last summer, when President Trump suggested that the U.S. should buy Greenland, some people laughed. Others scratched their heads. A lot of the island is buried under a mile-thick sheet of Arctic ice. But the planet is warming, and that is unlocking many of Greenland's riches, creating a geopolitical competition. NPR's Jackie Northam has this report from southern Greenland.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHEEP BLEATING)
JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Shaggy, fat sheep are herded off a boat onto a narrow path here in Narsaq. This is just a speck of a town - only 1,200 people - in southern Greenland. And it's a good hour's boat ride from the nearest community. It may be remote, but Narsaq has strategic importance because hidden within the craggy mountains surrounding the town are about a quarter of the world's rare-earth minerals.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOORS SLAMMING)
NORTHAM: It's a long, bumpy truck ride from the town up steep hills to get to the mineral deposits. Finally, you reach a plateau overlooking a majestic fjord. It's barren and silent out here. A single broad-winged bird glides overhead, surveilling the newcomers. This is Kvanefjeld, one of two major rare-earth mineral deposits in Greenland.
I'm walking through some rubble here. All around me are large piles of rocks. They're dark gray. They're quite dull. We've been shining an ultraviolet light on many of them. And as soon as the light hits the rock, it just fires out. It comes alive with color, and it glows. And that's the light hitting the rare-earth minerals.
Back at Kvanefjeld's head office in Narsaq, worker Pavia Rhodes moves boxes full of rock samples. The rare-earth minerals have names such as cerium, erbium and lanthanum. They're critical components for everything from smartphones to MRI machines to fighter aircraft. Rhodes pulls one box towards him, carefully organized and labeled by an American team.
PAVIA RHODES: United States charities was here in summer and analyzed.
NORTHAM: The U.S. Geological Survey has been assessing the Greenland deposits over the past couple of years. Washington considers the 17 rare-earth elements critical to America's economic and national security, but the U.S. produces only a minuscule amount. Instead, it depends on China.
JORGEN WAEVER JOHANSEN: Ninety-five percent of all rare-earth element products - they're based in China.
NORTHAM: Jorgen Waever Johansen is a former minister of mines in Greenland. He says the U.S. needs to find a way to be less reliant on China.
JOHANSEN: So when you are so dependent on natural resources coming from one place, then you are making yourself more vulnerable than you ought to be.
NORTHAM: Access to Greenland's rare-earth deposits could help break U.S. dependency on China, but the U.S. is coming in late. A Chinese state-owned company has already acquired a 12% stake in the Kvanefjeld deposit. The growing competition over Greenland's natural resources may have been behind President Trump's interest in the island, says Johansen.
JOHANSEN: We are happy that the crazy idea of buying Greenland was made into a global news thing because of all the attention that Greenland got as a result of it. We don't agree. We are not for sale, but we're open for business.
NORTHAM: Greenland is a semi-autonomous territory of Denmark with just 56,000 people. Rasmus Nielsen, an associate professor of international relations at the University of Greenland, says for years, the island was virtually ignored. Now melting polar ice is fueling a race for new transportation routes and natural resources, making Greenland strategically important for the U.S.
RASMUS NIELSEN: The last couple of years, we can see a bigger focus and also involvement that the U.S. want to have. And you can feel that the U.S. is really waking up to Arctic reality, partly because of China.
NORTHAM: Beijing wants to create a so-called polar silk road by developing shipping lanes and infrastructure projects strung across the Arctic. Marc Lanteigne, a political science professor at the University of Tromso in Norway, says China has been using a hearts-and-mind campaign with official visits to Greenland, joint scientific research projects and film festivals featuring Chinese movies.
MARC LANTEIGNE: China's really tried to approach the region as a potential partner, to say that we're here to help set up joint ventures. We're here to provide potential finance for new economic endeavors and really trying to play up the idea that we're here to help rather than we're here to kind of throw weight around.
NORTHAM: The U.S. is also increasing its presence in Greenland with official visits from the Pentagon, White House and State Department. And the U.S. is opening up a consulate there. This summer, the U.S. signed a memorandum of understanding with Greenland to help develop its energy and mining sectors, including rare-earth minerals.
Jackie Northam, NPR News, in southern Greenland.
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