The Inuit in Greenland are Surviving Rapid Change

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NUUK, Greenland — Greenland is the world’s largest island, but is home to just over 56,000 people, making it one of the least populated countries. Beside a handful of bold Viking settlers, indigenous Inuit peoples were the only inhabitants of Greenland until 1721, when Denmark began colonizing the vast arctic country.

Greenland has since remained a part of the Kingdom of Denmark, but in 2008 became more autonomous. Still, more than half of Greenland’s home-ruling government’s revenue is subsidized by Denmark.

While much of the country’s population is still indigenous—88 percent are Inuit—Greenlandic society has changed rapidly in the past century, especially for this ethnic group. Today, Greenland faces complex issues associated with poverty.

Industry and Urbanization

Since humans first arrived, fishing and hunting has been essential to life and commerce in Greenland. But when the fishing industry developed and commercialized after World War II, and big ships came to Greenland’s shores, many local economies did not persevere.

Small Inuit villages and towns across the country that relied on fishing for sustenance and commerce suffered as a result of industrialization. The exodus of many residents to cities to work in processing factories weakened local economies further. Many small communities like Kangeq, a tiny town on the southwest coast, ached more when the Danish government, toward the end of the last century, started cutting off services and shutting off power because of the villages’ remoteness.

Rapid modernization has caused Inuit communities to deteriorate, many moving into urban tenements where unemployment is high, and others staying in secluded villages, many of which still lack basic services.

Today the fishing industry remains strong, and has even grown in recent years. But the economy’s significant dependence on fishing exports (it accounts for 91 percent of all national exports) makes it vulnerable. A sudden shift in halibut or shrimp prices, or even worse, a change in the environment, could have huge effects on Greenland’s economy.

Changing Climate

Greenland’s melting icecaps will have serious consequences for the whole world in coming decades, but Greenlanders are already dealing with the effects, especially those living in poverty.

Perhaps no population in the world has already witnessed the devastation of climate change so clearly as have the Inuit communities situated in the Arctic.

Disappearing sea ice not only disrupts the ability for arctic people to hunt, but it threatens the existence of species that are important to their food security and economies. Lake and river erosion destroys already poor municipal infrastructure and homes. And along with erosion, more frequent and severe weather threatens Inuit water security. Warming temperatures also bring invasive species of fish, birds and insects, as well as new diseases. Medical studies find that such changes could have severe impacts on the health of Inuit communities, where health standards are already wanting.

As the effects of climate change speed up, the poorest people living in the arctic will suffer the most, and poverty in Greenland will be exacerbated. Thousands more may have to leave their homes, this time as climate refugees.

Representatives from Inuit communities across the Arctic have testified at the UN, some arguing that the ongoing deterioration of their homes as a result of climate change is a violation of human rights.

Mental Health

Medical studies have documented correlations between climate change and problems in Inuit mental health. Greenland’s most concerning public health issue in recent decades has been its alarming suicide rate, which is the highest in the world. In 2015 it was at 82.8 per 100,000 people.

There is no definitive answer for why so many, mostly young, Greenlanders take their own lives. “Clusters” of suicides, where several teens kill themselves in a short period of time, have indicated an almost contagious element to the epidemic. For small villages of around 100 people, such events can be devastating.

Some hypothesized that seasonal affective disorder caused by the dark winters may contribute to high rate of suicides. But more suicides occur during summer months, and the rate only began spiking in the 70s and 80s.

Many Greenlanders blame rampant poverty, unemployment and alcoholism. Inuit populations in other countries also suffer from similarly high suicide rates, and psychology studies have also suggested correlations to poverty. Expanding remote Inuit communities’ access to trained psychologists and adequate health clinics could be a good start for addressing the issue.

Unable to find the help of specialists, some Greenland families have created support groups and hotlines to help their own communities, perhaps contributing to the steady decline in the national suicide rate. Such adaptability is characteristic of a people who have dealt with formidable changes in a short span of history. Greenlanders will likely need to continue to adapt and persevere, as their society faces even more change in coming years.

Charlie Tomb

Photo: Flickr

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