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How a film about a planned uranium mine helped empower a small community in Greenland

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13 May 2022

How a film about a planned uranium mine helped empower a small community in Greenland

Professor of Cross-Disciplinary Art

REF 2021

This case study was included as part of the Research Excellence Framework for 2021:

Friday 13 May • Reading time: 4 minutes

My film about uranium mining in Greenland exposed how cultural taboos in dealing with conflicts can prevent democratic participation.

My film Kuannersuit; Kvanefjeld investigated the potentially devastating environmental and societal risks from uranium mining in South Greenland. 

It revealed how cultural taboos in dealing with conflicts can prevent democratic participation.

The research considered the cultural and societal issues impacting on a consultation process concerning uranium mining in South Greenland. This was undertaken in collaboration with local communities, government consultants in Greenland and experts in Denmark and the European Commission. 

In my research I used filmed documentation, art works, artistic interventions and curatorial methods to identify key issues in the flawed relationship between democratic stakeholders in Greenland. The research was exhibited continually between 2017 and 2020 in high profile exhibitions in major international museums, art venues and film festivals. 

The research was funded by Keck Futures in the USA, the British Council, Arts Council England, the Danish Arts Foundation and ZKM, Germany. It was nominated for the French Ministry of Culture/European Commission-funded COAL Art and Ecology Prize 2018 and presented at COP24 in Poland. 

The background

In 2013, I started to follow the political and democratic process in the establishment of a Chinese/Australian-owned mining project at Kvanefjeld, a mountain range in South Greenland which is thought to be the world’s second-largest deposit of rare earth oxides, and the sixth-largest deposit of uranium. It also contains substantial sodium fluoride deposits and is thought to be one of the largest multi-element deposits of its kind in the world. 

However, surrounding Kvanefjeld is Greenland’s only farming lands, in a region characterised by small towns, fishing, and a widely dispersed indigenous population of sheep farmers, keen to maintain their traditional way of life.

My research revealed the huge challenges faced by the Greenland government as it deliberated on using mining to diversify the country’s economy while pursuing independence from Denmark. Born in Denmark, I was acutely aware of the colonial history between Denmark and Greenland and this understanding helped me to address and mitigate levels of mistrust.

In 2015, I began to capture narratives, stories and testimonials that exposed the conflict between progress and tradition that surrounded the siting of the open pit mine, located near the town of Narsaq. My research documented a community that was vulnerable because of an inability to articulate and platform their fears. 

Making the film

In 2016, following conversations with international experts in nuclear science and history, I visited the region to document and understand the complex relationships between decision-making, long-term sustainability, ecological and economic equity, and cultural identity. Using documentary filmmaking as an artistic and ethnographic tool, I captured visual and oral evidence of the possible environmental and societal impact of uranium mining. 

The film portrayed a community that was divided on the issue of uranium mining and struggled to understand the potential risks and consequences to their traditional way of life. It brought together interviews with farmers, locals and politicians to create a video work and an art installation. 

The issues identified by the film were further contextualised in 2020 by the creation of an online archive, which visualised the layers of complexity of the Kvanefjeld mine in the wider geopolitical context of Greenland. 

A mountain range in South Greenland
The Kvanefjeld mountain range in South Greenland

Cultural taboos

The work highlighted the potential impact of cultural taboos in Greenland, where major disagreements are avoided rather than confronted, and I saw evidence that this had resulted in a democratic vacuum, and widespread anxiety and depression. 

The film documented the failure of government stakeholder consultation in developing an inclusive and informed process which caused mistrust and suspicion of underlying agendas, and it highlighted the vulnerability of a community with no resources and little scientific literacy, in dealing with the potential risks of a major planned mining operation. 

Giving a voice to the community

The film played an important role in articulating and bringing to attention the concerns of people living in the Kvanefjeld region of Greenland, and has been exhibited on permanent display in the local museum

A local resident in Narsaq, who later became a member of the Greenland Parliament wrote, “[This film] has been incredibly important in bringing the potentially disastrous uranium mining at Kvanefjeld to public attention, and it has highlighted that the government has not included the local population in the democratic process.” 

A former Minister for Industry and Mineral Resources in Greenland also commented,

“I showed the film to senior members of my party last year. We felt that the film was very important in terms of showing the problems that the Kuannersuit mine poses in Greenland right now, and the lack of a democratic conversation we feel is taking place in our society.”

Statements in the documentary such as “When we disagree, we don’t discuss that subject” increased the awareness of how cultural taboos and silencing of issues of major disagreements had serious ramifications for the democratic system. 

A local resident and anti-uranium mining activist, who later became a government minister wrote, “[Autogena’s film] enabled us to become more aware [..] that the right to speak is something we, as citizens in this country, will need to work on if we are to develop our country as we would like. [..] I am now working to make citizens more aware that citizen involvement should be something we take for granted, and not a topic to be fought for.”

A local sheep farmer described how the work gave her a voice. “It has been difficult to express our feelings about the mine, because for many years our concerns were not listened to. I feel that Lise’s film gave me a voice that I didn’t have before."

Stimulating public debate

On the suggestion of a local resident in Narsaq, a public discussion about the film and the questions it raised, took place at the University of Greenland. 

The attendees included six members of Greenland’s parliament, the prime minister’s personal secretary, the head of the opposition party, the Minister for Mineral Resources, representatives from government agencies, a mining executive, members of the public, academics, anti-mining activists and the heads of the Human Rights Council and the Red Cross. 

In my presentation I highlighted the questions and issues identified by the research, and questioned the process of inclusive decision making and stakeholder engagement in Greenland.

The Environmental Agency for Mineral Resource Activities (EAMRA) official responsible for community engagement later commented, “[The event] strengthened my understanding that we must develop our citizen involvement in Greenland. [It] asked many questions [..] that have not yet been properly addressed, either by the government, research-wise or by a wider population group.”

A child from the Kvanefjeld region of Greenland
My film helped give the local community a voice

Further work

Following this meeting, I involved the community engagement official at EAMRA and the government’s environmental consultants on mining in an alternative approach to community engagement that would empower the community to conduct their own environmental monitoring of the mining project. 

In 2018, I was commissioned to work as an artist with the EU science policy unit, JRC, which monitors background radiation data across Europe. Realising that the EU did not receive background radiation data from Greenland, I proposed (with a curator of Nuclear Culture at Bildmuseet), an artist-led collaboration with JRC and EAMRA to enable the community in the Kvanefjeld region to take ownership of monitoring the impact of uranium mining. 

By democratising data collection and submitting data directly to the EU and the Danish Emergency Management Agency monitoring system, the community would have an early warning system for any increases in radiation and develop enhanced localised scientific knowledge. 

This new approach represented a shift in environmental monitoring to a distributed community-led approach, developed in consultation with residents, sheep farmers, anti-mining activists, health experts, EU scientists and government consultants. 

However, in 2021, the growing opposition to the Kvanefjeld mine resulted in a change of government in Greenland, and subsequent legislation on the mining of uranium blocked the plans for the Kvanefjeld mine.

Sharing of knowledge 

In 2018, I was invited to present my film at the International Nuclear Film Festival to Navajo Indian communities in the US, blighted by a decade of uranium mining. 

The presentation established links between indigenous activists, scientists and film makers in Greenland and the Navajo Nation and it led to a sharing of experiences and expertise on issues of indigenous rights, nuclear colonialism, traditional land use and community radiation monitoring. 

A Navajo environmental scientist wrote, "[We] started planning a Navajo/Greenlandic knowledge exchange on community monitoring of radiation from mining sites, and I am now in contact with a sheep farmer in Greenland who will be coordinating my [visit] to Greenland." 

In 2019, I purchased a small building overlooking the Kvanefjeld mountain range, where I established Narsaq International International Research Station (NIRS), an organisation that connects researchers from outside with the local population in Narsaq, to ensure that research and knowledge that is generated locally also benefits the local community. 

Recent projects at NIRS have involved PhD research funded by the Internet Society Foundation in the US, and seminars to local high school students and teachers on evolving relationships between internet, technology, e-waste and mining in South Greenland. 

A major Swiss research programme involving seven polar research organisations is using the research station as a base for the next four years, undertaking research into climate impacts on the Greenlandic fjord systems and future living conditions in South Greenland, and a Canadian research project will explore the impact of local women on recent political history in Greenland. 

Late this summer the research station will host design researchers from Sheffield Hallam University’s Lab4Living and Art, Design and Media Research Centre, who will meet with government, businesses and local residents to develop co-design solutions for sustainable living in South Greenland.

REF 2021 Research Excellence Framework logo

About this project

Explore the people and organisations behind this research, and find related publications by the research team.

Research partners

European Commission

Related courses

Our teaching is informed by research. Browse undergraduate and postgraduate courses with links to this research project, topic or team.

Get in touch

Find key contacts for enquiries about funding, partnerships, collaborations and doctoral degrees.

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