Hands on

Weekly Cover | To save Greenland’s hamlets, lawmakers are suggesting that some be left to die

Being a hamlet resident. No questions asked (📸: Inuit Sila)

Kevin McGwin

If there is a third rail in Greenlandic politics, it is, perhaps, the fate of the country’s 54 hamlets, the small, remote settlements that, for many, are the essence of what it means to be Greenlandic.

The most recent lawmaker to grab hold of the issue is Aaja Chemnitz Larsen, one of the country’s two representatives in the Folketing, the Danish national assembly. In an address during the opening session earlier this month, she suggested that, in the event a hamlet was no longer viable, Nuuk should not use resources to ensure it could remain populated; instead residents should be helped to relocate to towns where there were adequate social services and infrastructure.

While there is no official definition of what constitutes a hamlet, they are typically remote settlements with less than 500 residents. The smallest has just 12. A handful have grown in population in recent years, and in some, where fishing is good, incomes are amongst the highest in the country.

SEE RELATED: The town that Nuuk forgot

Even so, the overall picture of hamlets is one of decline, poverty and social ill. In 1979, the year Greenland was granted home rule from Denmark, the 76 hamlets that existed at the time had an estimated collective population of 12,000, slightly less than quarter of the country’s 49,000 residents. Today, the national population has risen to 56,000, but the number of hamlet residents has fallen to just over 7,000.

“It’s appropriate to ask whether a society with 12 people can maintain the level of welfare that they expect,” Ms Larsen said, noting that in six hamlets there is no form of law-enforcement.

In her comments from the rostrum, as well as after, Ms Larsen chose her words carefully, underscoring, for example, that not all hamlets were the same, and, crucially, that those that weren’t viable should be allowed to die a “natural” death, by which she meant that residents would not be forced to relocate, as happened during Danish-led modernisation efforts starting in the 1950s.

SEE RELATED: Small is viable

Even so, she has been criticised roundly for what opponents labelled a “disrespectful” and “degrading” attitude towards hamlet residents and their lifestyle.

Technically speaking, Ms Larsen’s comments were out of line. Her party, IA, toes the political consensus in supporting Greenlanders’ right to “settle where they want”, Múte B Egede, the party leader, said in a public reprimand. “No-one,” he added “will ever be denied that right.”

Ms Larsen had stated from the outset the comments where her own opinion, and not the party’s position, but she is not alone in suggesting that lawmakers consider the future of hamlets; one previous proposal would have wound down hamlets that had less than 100 residents, another suggested ranking which hamlets should be first in line for the resources they needed to survive, as well as coming up with an “orderly” strategy for winding down hamlets that were not able to survive.

SEE RELATED: Decline, a punishment

Similarly, in 2017, Kommuneqarfik Sermersooq, the municipal authority that governs Nuuk and its associated hamlets, drew up guidelines that legislators could use when seeking to determine which hamlets should get which resources.

Asii Chemnitz Narup (no relation), a member of IA and mayor of Kommuneqarfik Sermersooq at the time the guidelines were drawn up, suggested last week in response to Ms Larsen’s address that national lawmakers do something similar.

Echoing Ms Larsen’s comments, she said hamlets could be divided into those that have the natural resources to remain viable, and those that do not. It is possible to prop up have-not hamlets, if enough resources are diverted to them, but, she warned, that comes a cost of addressing problems elsewhere.

“The discussion about the future of hamlets,” she said, “is intrinsically tied to the discussion about our welfare, and our future.”

A show of support for Ms Larsen’s position, if in a back-handed sort of way.

The Weekly Cover is The Rasmussen’s main story of the week. These articles will sometimes look ahead at one of the more important or interesting topics of the coming week, or they may provide insight and analysis about a current issue.

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