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The Challenges of Living in Rural Greenland


By Uiloq Mulvad Jessen

Greenland is the world’s biggest island with its 2,166,086 square kilometers, which is about the same size as Alaska and California together. In Greenland, there are approximately 56,500 inhabitants, compared to California and Alaska with about 39.5 million. The people in Greenland are spread throughout 17 towns and 58 settlements. The inhabitants in the settlements can number from around 40 to 400. Thereby, Greenland has the lowest number of inhabitants per square kilometer in the world. 

The only way to get from one town or settlement to another is by aircraft or by boat, and traveling is extremely expensive. Access to the settlements can especially be difficult due to their remoteness, but also due to ice, snow, and other extreme weather conditions (this can be compared to some of the settlements in Alaska and northern Canada). As an example some settlements only receive shipments twice a year.

If a place has been categorized as a settlement, then it can only be closed if everybody moves from the settlement. The government is also required to keep certain facilities available for instance power plants, water-treatment systems, stores, etc. Therefore a settlement with only 40 inhabitants will still receive the mentioned services.

Up until 1994, there was a so-called one-price system in Greenland where the price of most merchandise was the same whether or not you bought it in a settlement in the most remote part of Greenland or in the capital of Nuuk. This meant that the inhabitants in the bigger towns paid too much for a piece of merchandise while people in the settlements paid too little – this is often called ‘cross subsidizing.’ This was changed in 1994 in order to make the prices more transparent.

The change of the system had the consequence that all the merchandise and much of the services in the settlements became very expensive and this had a huge impact on the many of the inhabitants. Some argue that using real-cost prices will force people to move to the towns, which will result in the closing of settlements. It should be mentioned that the use of these systems very much depends on which political party has the power in Greenland. For instance, now the current government is working on reincorporating the one-price system in certain areas.

The inhabitants of especially the northern settlements are mainly fishermen and hunters. Their way of living is very much the traditional way of living in Greenland. These people still very much depend on being able to catch game and fish for their survival, as was the case for all of Greenland before the Industrial Revolution. This is in large part due to many of the inhabitants’ economic situation, but also because the remoteness makes it difficult to secure food supply all the time, especially in the wintertime. This is not the case in the bigger towns where the supply of food is much more stable, so the food base is often more westernized.

Kulusuk, one of Greenland's larger settlements

Often when Greenlandic politicians talk about global warming the fishermen and hunters are mentioned as the vulnerable ones, because they are the ones who feel the changes the most, especially considering fishing and hunting is done mainly on sea ice, which is another challenge.

Fishing has been and still is in these years a very important part of the Greenlandic way of living. This is due to the fact that the main export from Greenland is fish and shrimp. These products are at this time about the only income source for Greenland besides the $0.6 billion block grant from Denmark.

However, there is also a dilemma regarding fishing in Greenland. The dilemma – drawn up very simply – is whether Greenland should rely mainly on seagoing fishing vessels or local fishermen living in the settlements, as well as whether to take advantage of foreign or domestic fishing factories. This is in order to keep up the living conditions of the settlements compared to earning more by doing all the production outside of Greenland.

In the 1960s, several hunters and fishermen were moved from their one-family houses to towns and into apartments buildings, which resulted in major social problems. This initiative has had a major impact on many and is still very much in everybody’s mind.

Therefore a short-term solution is not to close down settlements and make the inhabitants leave their communities, especially considering many lack education and this limits their opportunities to get good jobs in the towns.  Besides this there is also a serious lack of housing in the bigger towns, which makes it extremely difficult to get a place to live. The waiting list for rental apartments for people with low income can be up to 20 years in Nuuk.

Whether or not the inhabitants from the settlements move, it is still very difficult to ensure all settlements have well-educated teachers, buildings for schools, and the like to ensure good education for the children. The government also needs investments for institutions if it is necessary to move the children from the settlements during their education. So all in all, the government will have to spend quite a lot of money to upgrade people’s education.

Many of the daily activities in the settlements are done in a way that involves the whole community, mainly because of the small sizes of the settlements. The inhabitants know each other, which often makes them more connected. This is not really the case in the growing towns. The bigger towns are more similar to small northern European towns. There is much more development in the bigger towns compared to the settlements and the smaller towns. This is also an issue that is quite often discussed in Greenland.

Even though a rather gloomy picture of the settlements is depicted here, the fact is that they still have a cultural importance to Greenland. This is why you can expect that the settlements will continue to be kept “alive” for a long time. Many people in the settlements still live in a traditional way and the fear might be that especially the Greenlandic hunting traditions and that way of life will disappear.

It should also be mentioned that some of the settlements are actually doing quite well, which often can be led back to the fact that the settlement in question has some business opportunities that makes the living conditions of the inhabitants decent, therefore they have more energy to improve their community. This fact is important to remember when trying to find a solution to the challenges of maintaining the settlements; there is no one-size-fits-all solution.



Uiloq Mulvad Jessen is a special advisor at the Government of Greenland, where her work covers issues regarding the Arctic and indigenous peoples' rights.

[Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]


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