Greenland village futures

Village life in the Arctic is being challenged in numerous ways. Ongoing changes in climate are causing trouble for many places, for instance, dwindling ice cover and "rotten ice" inhibits transport, fisheries and hunting. The melting of the permafrost creates unstable ground for housing and transport. It has also been argued, however, that the most serious problems today are due to demographic changes, caused by changes in the gender balance and generational differences in social and economic preferences. It may very well be that a number of villages become deserted in the coming decades.

People left the village of Kangeq, in West Greenland, in the late 1960's and the early 1970's. Many moved to Nuuk. Photo: Rasmus Ole Rasmussen

People left the village of Kangeq, in West Greenland, in the late 1960's and the early 1970's. Many moved to Nuuk. Photo: Rasmus Ole Rasmussen

Living under changing conditions is nothing new for Arctic inhabitants, however, while abandoned settlements have been a frequent phenomenon over time in this region. In the case of Greenland the largest number of settlements was around the period 1900 to 1920 where the total number of settled places numbered more than 200. Today it is down to less than 100, and several of these places were abandoned in the latter part of the 20th century.

The village of Kangeq is situated at the mouth of the Godthåbs Fiord, not far from Nuuk, the current capital of Greenland. It was established to take advantage of the rich hunting and fishing options available, and during the modernisation process after WWII a plant for the processing of cod was established, providing good income opportunities for a thriving fishing community. It was however abandoned in the late 1960's and the beginning of the 1970's, partly due to the increasing concentration of processing activities in Nuuk, and partly due to the natural reduction in the cod stock. The later followed as a consequence of reduced sea temperatures.

The buildings were subsequently abandoned as no alternatives were envisaged. The buildings continue to stand more or less as they were left, impacted, though, through forty years of weather and wind, giving the place a somewhat sad ghost-town ambiance. For instance in the former church, only the paint indicates its former use.

Also in the Godthåbs Fiord another village, Qoorqut, went through more or less the same process. It was established at a place with abundant cod fishing opportunities, but the economic background for its existence vanished when the cod stock diminished during the 1970s and 1980s and finally disappeared at the end of the 1980s. As a consequence the place was closed down and temporarily abandoned during this period.
Only temporarily, though, as many people from Nuuk saw the place as providing excellent options for summer houses. The municipality of Nuuk saw the potentials of the old school building to provide excellent facilities for summer schools and vacation camps.

In consequence, the buildings have been maintained, and most are now in use year round, as second homes, as summer houses, for school camps and for tourists. There are no permanent residents in the village, but the place has nevertheless experienced "a second birth", providing not only good experiences to local inhabitants, but also healthy incomes to the community.

While previous arrangements between the EU and Greenland focused on the simple exchange of EU exploitation of fish resources for cash, the recognition by the EU of the Arctic as being inhabited provides a totally new basis for future relations, where tourism, but also other economic activities, may provide new opportunities for Arctic communities to thrive and develop. Hopefully this can contribute to preventing sad stories like that of Kangeq from happening again, providing instead new perspectives, as has been the case in Qoorqut.

Rasmus Ole Rasmussen

Senior Research Fellow