Greenland is a step closer to independence from Denmark after voting for more self-rule, but questions remain over the viability of sovereignty and the exploitation of Arctic riches.

More than 75% of voters said Yes yesterday to greater autonomy and local government head Hans Enoksen said he dreams of an independent Greenland in 12 years, in time ‘for my 65th birthday.’

His former foreign minister Aleqa Hammond would like to see the island cut its ties to Denmark in eight years, and the head of Greenland's employees union SIK, Jess Berthelsen, wants it to happen in four years.

But No campaign leader Jens Frederiksen said ‘it's an illusion to think that Greenland can spread its own wings that soon.’

‘We don't yet have the means to finance the new areas Greenland will be taking over from Denmark as part of self-rule, including justice, police, and prison affairs,’ he said.

Mr Frederiksen said ‘independence requires a healthy economy,’ and ‘that's not the case in Greenland’ where there have been successive budget deficits in recent years. 'The local government has itself admitted that its coffers will be empty in four years.'

Greenland receives annual subsidies from Denmark - about 3.2 billion kroner (€430 million) in 2007 - or almost half of its budget.

Finn Lynge, a politician and author, said he thinks it is ‘impossible for an island with 50,000 to 60,000 inhabitants to become an independent state.’

‘There are simply too few of us to provide the personnel necessary to develop a viable state,’ he said.

Autonomy hopes

Lars-Emil Johansen, who was prime minister of the island from 1991 to 1997 and who helped bring about its semi-autonomous status in 1979, has rejected the criticism.

‘Yes we can,’ he has repeatedly stated, a clear reference to US president-elect Barack Obama's election slogan.

Mr Johansen noted that the self-rule agreement hammered out earlier this year between Nuuk and Copenhagen is flexible and sets no deadlines for when each policy area will be transferred to Greenland.

Pundit Juaaka Lyberth echoed that sentiment.

‘There are 32 areas that Denmark will relinquish. But the local government will assume responsibility and control over the economy when it deems the time right,’ he said.

The issue of potentially lucrative riches under Greenland's Arctic seabed and icecap is expected to be one of the first policy areas the local government will address.

According to international experts, the region is home to large oil and gas deposits as well as diamonds, gold and other minerals.

Melting ice in the Arctic owing to climate change could make the region more accessible to exploration in the future.

The countries ringing the Arctic Ocean - Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States - are currently competing over territorial claims in the region and Greenland is keen to garner its share.

Nuuk's self-rule agreement with Copenhagen stipulates that ‘the revenues from activities related to raw materials be distributed to Greenland’ in return for reducing annual subsidies from Copenhagen.

On the eve of yesterday's referendum, the Scottish company Cain Energy inked a deal in Nuuk for two oil prospecting licenses off southern Greenland, a sign of the keen interest of international oil firms despite the difficult and costly efforts required because of the harsh climate.

The local government is therefore focusing its energy on resources underground, such as diamonds, gold, lead and uranium, to diversify its economy currently largely based on the fishing industry, which is threatened by global warming and shrinking stocks.

‘We're counting our chickens before they're hatched because we haven't yet struck oil and the existing mines are closing because of the financial crisis,’ warned Frederiksen.

But local residents, like Kim who celebrated the ‘yes’ vote until the wee hours of Wednesday morning, was unfazed, saying ‘you have to take risks in life.’

‘It's now or never for ... the independence that Inuits really hope for.’