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As part of the pre-opening of the Austrian Polar Research Station “Sermilik” in East Greenland, there was also a social program to inform local politicians, local business people and the inhabitants of Tasiilaq about the project. The sustainable inclusion of the local community with the research activities is an essential principle of the project.

Meeting with community representatives

On September 7, 2023, the pre-opening delegation from the University of Graz, APRI, Austrian media and financier Christian Palmers met with people from Tasiilaq’s municipality. Tasiilaq is the administrative centre on the thousands of kilometres long east coast of Greenland, which is very sparsely populated. There are only five other settlements (Isortoq, Kulusuk, Kummiut, Sermiligaaq, Tiniteqilaaq), which together with Tasiilaq have about 2700 inhabitants. 800 km to the north is Ittoqortoormiit with a decreasing population of less than 400 people. Both settlements are in the district of Sermersooq, under the administration of the Greenlandic capital Nuuk, which lies 650 km away from Tasiilaq, separated by the 2000 – 3000 m thick Greenlandic ice sheet, on the west coast. This is not necessarily a good prerequisite for an administration that is supposed to know of and respond to the needs of the inhabitants.

The Ammassalik district (© Google Maps)

We were invited to the meeting room of the municipal building by the district chief Hjørdis Viberg. The University of Graz Rector, Dr. Peter Riedler, and the initiator and head of the research station project, Prof. Wolfgang Schöner, presented the tasks and goals of the new station building. The common language was English, which was translated into Danish to reach everyone in the room.

Expectations of the local community

The representatives were very open-minded about the activities presented and received the project with its holistic research approach involving the local people very positively. For example, there is interest in the research on fish stocks, as a local fish factory is to be built next year. Climate change and its impact on the cold winds – “piteraq” in Greenlandic – which can blow from the inland ice in the west into the fjord system at 200-300 km/h, is also of great importance to the local people, because the enormous energy of a piteraq poses a great danger to their belongings. Will the storms become more frequent and stronger due to climate change?

A cooperation with the local school for children up to the 10th grade would be very welcome in order to teach important topics such as ecology, climate change and sustainable management. There are not many opportunities to make lessons interactive. Pupils from the western settlements in Greenland should also benefit, instead of sending children from Tasiilaq to West Greenland for further education. This would be an important recognition for East Greenland, which suffers from a west-east divide within the Greenlandic society. Many students come back to Tasiilaq after a higher education in Nuuk or outside Greenland, but find no opportunity to use the knowledge they have acquired.

The skills of the local population can be involved in logistics, handicraft tasks, some station maintenance tasks and also for measurements as a part of Citizen Science. One of the district representatives says: “Most scientists come to Greenland to do research and, without informing the local population about their activities and sharing their results, quickly say ‘good bye’.” He expresses that it is exceptional and very appreciated that the Sermilik-project would involve the local population from the beginning. In the East Greenland society, everyone helps everyone else with their skills, even if they sometimes act as competitors. “When Hans is sick, Jens helps out”, that is the social basis of cooperation, which can also be a benefit for the station operation. Wolfgang Schöner emphasises that research projects in Canada can nowadays only be carried out with the involvement and approval of the population. The Snow2Rain project of the APRI has been setting first accents in this regard since 2020.

We raise our observations that we see a big problem with waste disposal in Tasiilaq and also in the surrounding settlements. One of the district representatives immediately agrees that this requires education and awareness-raising among the inhabitants, combined with government efforts for a disposal system. We find litter on the beach even in the most remote fjords, which is a real problem especially in settlement areas. It is eaten by sled dogs. Plastic remains in the environment for decades, is distributed by the wind and, after a long process of fragmentation, enters the food chain as microplastic, so it can even penetrate right into the body cells of creatures. Research about the plastic distribution in the Arctic is done in the microplastics-project at the University of Innsbruck, Austria.

Modern houses in Tasiilaq (© Christoph Ruhsam)

The planned fish factory in Tasiilaq, which could possibly start operation in 2024, would be able to use the results of research on marine ecology. No trawlers would be used, yet the fish factory would serve as a source of income for local fishermen. There is a lot of fish in the Tasiilaq area, which we were able to experience during the excursion to the Hann Glacier: For the group’s lunch it was enough to let a fishing hook hang from the boat into the sea for no more than 5 minutes to catch three large cod in a row!

Jobs in the East Greenland settlements are mainly found in the administration, in order to carry out the necessary services for the community. Tourism offers work in logistics, especially in the summer, gives the hunters tasks as guides or offers the possibility to rent out accommodation.

Most scientists come to Greenland to do research and, without informing the local population about their activities and sharing the results of their research, quickly ‘say goodbye’. The approach of the Sermilik-project with the integration of the local people is exceptional and very encouraging.”

Tasiilaq district representative

Social problems

Hjørdis Viberg states that the cramped living space of the families is the main reason for social problems. 2-3 generations often live together in one of the colourful wooden houses. Tensions arise and violence and abuse occur because of alcohol consumption. Almost half of the population has already experienced the one or the other. The suicide rate is very high, especially among young people. At the cemetery we find graves decorated with photos and colourful plastic flowers, showing smiling young people, a mobile phone in their hand, as if they were in the middle of a purposeful life. On the day of our departure, as we walk to the jetty, a pickup truck drives by loaded with a white coffin. In the distance I recognise the cemetery and a small excavator digging a hole … This makes us very thoughtful and we discuss the situation with Line, the Danish nurse who is also active in local tourism as well as in social projects. There is hope, but the work has its setbacks. The family ties that have done so much good for the cohesion of Inuit society are, however, a limitation in terms of the possibilities for change in the lives of the children and young people to make their lives more independent.

The government promised to build 30 new apartments this year. Not a single one was implemented. The money assigned for this purpose was distributed at the political level among several municipalities, often in West Greenland. Arguments like: “Why do you get so much? We need some of it too”, mean that in the end often little or nothing is implemented. Everyone wants to work for a better future. Nevertheless, there are only small successes. Will the flats be built next year? People don’t really believe in that, although an improved standard of living is an important part of solving the problems. The difference between good and poor living is very narrow. Here, someone can quickly become a welfare recipient and fall into a collapsing situation. They live in a narrow society, everything is very visible.

A good Internet access for all is also important so that contact can be maintained over the long distances. The government promises more support. The future will show what will be really implemented.

Discussion with the inhabitants

In the evening the whole population of Tasiilaq was invited to the Community House to receive information about the project. A total of 40 people came. Rector Riedler and Wolfgang Schöner presented in English the key points and research priorities of the project. Translations were made into Danish and East Greenlandic. There were interesting questions, especially from the Danish participants who work in education and social affairs in Tasiilaq, which followed up with topics from the morning. They ranged from the idea of a website for the research station with up-to-date information on the research activities to the integration of the station into school lessons. A teacher with a background in geology suggested excursions to the station. Science education could not be more illustrative!

Community event teaser (© Christoph Ruhsam)

The programme was concluded with the presentation of a guest gift in the form of a solar cell backpack from the University of Graz to the district chief. As a counter-gift, we were presented with 3 songs performed by a part of the Tasiilaq choir, which we enjoyed a lot: A lament song of a settlement about the loss of its population, a traditional drum dance for conflict resolution in disputes and a song about the beauty of Greenlandic nature. We were touched and, after conversations along with tea or coffee, spent the evening in the local bar, which, in addition to interesting conversations, again allowed us to experience the dark side of alcohol consumption first hand. Greenland is so big and wide. The East Greenlandic population has been catapulted from a nomadic life to modernity within about 130 years – that’s only about 4-5 generations. Much will have to change to make the society fit for the future. The first steps have been taken, but it will be particularly up to the youth to make something individual in order not to perish. We have seen many smiling children. Each one has the chance to create something new and positive. May they succeed!

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