This article was originally published on VICE France.
It’s the winter of 2018, and from this corner in the northwest of Greenland, the rest of the world all feels very far away. With a harsh climate that has largely limited immigration, Greenland’s population is just 56,000, despite the country being larger than Mexico.
On the other side of Baffin Bay, which separates Greenland from Canada, sits the tiny island of Akunnaaq. The population here is 70 – all Inuit, and mostly hunters. Fifty or so little houses sit on a rocky promontory facing the sea; fewer than ten of these have running water.
Outside, it’s freezing, with temperatures averaging around -20 degrees Celsius in winter. There are no roads or trees for hundreds of kilometres, nor are there hotels, restaurants or doctors. There’s just an icy port, a fish cannery and a little grocery store stocked with ammunition, soda and sweets. Other than that, there’s ice and snow – and, of course, the sea.
An exodus of young people and the consequences of global warming loom large in Akunnaaq. The population was 115 in 2013, 70 in 2018 and will be 66 in 2020. For young people seeking a future, it’s difficult to resist the call of bigger cities like Greenland’s capital, Nuuk.
When I ask locals if the town can survive and hold onto its cultural traditions, I’m told “Immaqa” – maybe.
During my stay on the island, I meet a community that includes seal-fishers, smartphone-obsessed teens, a young regional football champion, a teacher and writer, a Lutheran preacher and a handful of other colourful characters.
A typical day on Akunnaaq includes eating seal and whale, traveling on foot to get water from a frozen lake, watching the ice floe accumulate in the little fishing port or waiting patiently for the provisions helicopter.
This is how you live in a community cut off from the rest of the world for several months of the year. “The difference between people from the south and the Inuit,” a local tells me, “is that people from the south think ice is frozen water, whereas Inuit know water is just melted ice.”
In 2018, the ice floe isn’t accumulating as it should. In late January, the unusual temperatures are sometimes as high as -5 degrees Celsius, meaning in certain spots the ice only gathers for a few short winter weeks.
This doesn’t stop Jacob, a local I meet, getting on his Ski-Doo and heading due south on the ice floe. A few questions are always on the top of his mind: is the ice floe solid enough? Will we be able to get to the next island? To continental Europe? To go hunting on richer land?
But each day, the ice is still too thin. Jacob gently taps it with the end of his tuk, a big stick with a blade on the end of it, to gauge the thickness. “Not thick enough,” he declares. “Maybe tomorrow – if it’s colder.”
The Arctic territories have found themselves at the centre of new commercial and industrial wars, especially with the opening of the Northwest Passage, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through the Arctic Ocean. Then there’s the advent of Arctic tourist cruises, plus the oil exploration and uranium mining authorised by a national government keen to eventually end Greenland’s financial dependence on Denmark. Historically under Danish rule, Greenland became autonomous in 2009, but still receives assistance amounting to a quarter of its GDP from the country.
Against this complicated backdrop, the Inuit are struggling to defend their culture and lifestyle. More and more local resources, especially fish, are being exported to Europe and the United States by big Danish companies, making it increasingly difficult for locals to maintain their traditional diet.
Instead, they’re forced to buy expensive, processed food – and to try to make money by selling the fish that remains. It’s a vicious cycle for those who remain in this harsh and beautiful corner of the world.
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