In a land where the winter sun will only rise for an hour a day, the ruby, to the Inuit, holds “the divine flame that never goes out.”
Niels Madsen knew where the fiery crystal sparkled out of the earth like red stars in the dark arctic night. This particular place, a peninsula of land between two deep artic blue lakes, called to him. He is a native Greenlander who walks in two worlds, with an Inuit mother and a Danish father. Except for time spent in Denmark where he went to learn the printing trade, he has lived in Greenland almost all his life.
For centuries, Inuits had scooped up rubies while they hunted or gathered berries—a right protected by Greenlandic law. Madsen knew, even though no company had a legally recognized ruby claim, this right would soon be tested.
Niels Madsen, Inuit
He was not after the typical Greenlandic rubies that had been on the market for several years — the low grade material carved into cultural mementos which were sold to tourists.
The rubies he sought were of the finest gem quality—perhaps worth more than diamonds.
Just by putting a shovel into the earth where these rubies were plentiful would be like standing on the top of a mountain and moving a pebble that would change the course of a mighty river.
It would begin a process that would expose for the world what he witnessed; the connection between a large scale mining company and the Bureau of Minerals and Petroleum, (BMP), which sought to cut Greenlanders out of true economic benefit while maintaining an anachronistic colonial framework.
To Madsen, the ruby “samples” that a foreign mining interest removed from the land, was done so under an emerging system, designed to keep Greenlanders out.
Madsen called such gems, “apartheid rubies.”
The Call Of The Divine Flame
On August 14th, 2007, Madsen and four others, including his sister, left the village of Qeqertarsuatsiaat. They got on a friend’s fishing boat and made the journey along the Greenland coast, trolling through the cold waters.
He knew exactly what he was looking for and where to find them. Madsen been taught to see the commercial value of new ruby deposits by gemologists hired by True North Gems, Inc., (TNG) the Canadian mining company that was now his nemesis.
TNG had had been operating on only an exploratory license, gathering up and removing ruby rough for years.
Earlier that summer, Madsen had met with Greg Davison, a new TNG manager from Canada. Madsen had previously worked for True North Gems. Davison wanted to rehire Madsen for the project, but Madsen was not interested.
“I told him I might come down and collect rocks on my own and he agreed because I had worked with TNG in 2005. But he wanted to make a gentleman’s agreement—that Greenlanders stayed away from the one place that had gem quality ruby—the best place,” said Madsen.
Davison gave two reasons for wanting him away.
First: Davison was obligated to document everything that was removed from that area. This was only partially accurate—it applied to True North, but not Madsen who had his rights to hand mine.
Second, Davison told him that the rough held no value.
This lie made Madsen angry. He had held a ruby in his hand that was worth a half million dollars. He knew that many people had in their own possession rubies of that same quality.
“I wanted him to continue to think I was stupid,” said Madsen, who did not immediately respond to Davidson. “But I immediately started planning to go where he did not want me to go. I would bring a Greenland flag because the rocks are not True North’s—they are still owned by Greenland.”
(I tried to interview Davidson for this article to get his version of events, but I was referred directly to Andrew Lee Smith, CEO of True North. His interview is published here.)
Yet Madsen was not someone who sought to draw attention to himself. He simply wanted to dig a few rubies, cut them and sell them for a fair price to a few jewelers interested in Greenland rubies. He had a wife and a family to feed.
(To native Greenlander’s, the mineral wealth of their lands is a sacred trust, not one to be stripped away.)
From his view, the slight benefit the locals could look forward to from TNG’s presence was temporary part-time employment and the local tax that additional labor generated.
“I compare it to a cruise ship with tourists coming into a Greenlander’s home, taking the TV, stereo and a nice table, and I get paid for carrying these out to the ship,” said Madsen. “We would not get the value of the merchandise, but would only be paid for the grunt work.”
It was clear to him why his efforts to generate real economic benefit through the ruby had been thwarted. An official from the BMP had told Madsen, “It is not the intention that the wealth go to the likes of you. It belongs to the state of Denmark.”
Yet the rubies were, as the Inuit stories told, a school of salmon that swam into the land. They were part of the abundance and beauty of the earth that in his view, was not a commodity, but a gift for all. If he gained ruby wealth, he would share it. He would empower the Inuit, and they would spread out on the land like caribou.
The Gemologist Teacher
The events that August could be traced back to 2004, when True North hired an economic geologist and graduate gemologist, William Rohtert.
Rohtert had previously been employed by the Rio Tinto in the 1980’s and 1990’s, where he was involved with the challenges of exploring and developing deposits of diamonds and colored gemstones. He had decades of field and marketing experience in the gem trade.
Initially, Rohtert was shocked at the environmental transformation in Greenland due to global warming. “Temperatures reaching up to eighty degrees in summer, and every summer, the sea ice retreats farther north. Even the Northwest passage was coming open,” he remarked.
With the receding of the snows, gold, platinum, diamond, sapphires and gem quality ruby had been discovered.
He viewed his work in Greenland as a perfect situation that would create tremendous benefit for both the local people and the shareholders of True North Gems.
(William Rohtert – Hamming it up)
“He often said to me with a big smile, everybody wins!” said Madsen. “There will be many deposits left after TNG has made their claims. We were all happy in those years and it seemed as if nothing was too good for Greenlanders.”
Rohtert and his crew spent much time in the field, searching for high quality deposits. As a specialist in the grading of rough gems, he saw in the veins of ruby some stones that rivaled the Burmese Hmong Hsu ruby deposit, the most prolific and valuable ruby deposit in the world.
“In Burma where rubies have been mined for millennia,” Rohtert said, “you have half a million people looking for rubies, many working in deplorable conditions. In Greenland, modern exploration was insignificant before True North.”
Rohtert saw a tremendous opportunity for positive impact in the world market. He convinced True North that, done right, Greenland could be a win-win situation for the company and the nation.
In the jewelry sector, particularly over the past few years, a new trend has emerged: beneficiation, which is an attempt to maximize economic benefit by adding additional manufacturing processes in the mine to market supply chain.
Greenland ruby seemed like an ideal product. With money provided by True North Gems, he purchased faceting machines and brought in teachers to teach gemstone cutting and jewelry design.
To Rohtert’s astonishment, Madsen and others in the village quickly became highly skilled in the polishing of ruby gemstones. He was impressed with the natural jewelry making talents of both the men and the women in the village.
Local enthusiasm for the gemstone business was strong. “In the modern world,” he explained, “companies often spend millions of dollars to create a market image for their product. Here you have this beautiful ruby product made by beautiful people in a beautiful land.”
“Their culture in the purist sense is communal, living or starving together is the survival mechanism. Now they feel they have brought in a whale called ‘rubies’, so it is alien to the people for a single company to go in there and take what belongs to them all.”
Rohtert left TNG in February 2007. He expressed a desire to help solve the current dilemma. “I wish the company well,” he said.
The Most Valuable Rubies
The boat ride to the ruby site took nearly six hours. From the landing, the trip up to the lakes was not far. Madsen and his four companions traveled light, walking half the day inland with just a simple shovel, tents and their food. They planned to stay a few days to hunt, fish, and gather ruby the way the Inuit always had.
Cupped into the mountains above the sea were two glacial lakes, deep green and blue, sparkling in the sun. The rubies were located on a peninsula, like a figure eight, that cut between the waters.
It was approximately 11AM when Madsen arrived, and he could see that the Canadians, who had already arrived by helicopter, were drilling and chain sawing for rubies.
All Madsen wanted to do was shovel in loose dirt and gather a few rocks that he could take home.
Soon a TNG official approached and told Madsen that he was not allowed to be there while they while they were mining.
(This ruby, valued at half a million dollars, could have brought badly needed prosperity. Instead, it was confiscated from its Inuit owner.)
“Are you mining?” Madsen asked. “You are not allowed to mine—just explore.”
She corrected herself and according to Madsen, replied that she was just exploring
“Have you read the law?” Madsen asked.
She had not.
“I have read the law,” he said, “And I am allowed to be here. If you want to complain, you will have to have the court decide.” (See the accompanying post on Greenlandic law.)
They began the simple act of digging. Yet the act was symbolic, for Madsen and for his friends — akin to Mahatma Gandhi’s march to the ocean where he and his friends and their handful of salt would take down the British Empire.
They were making history. This was the first time an Inuit had openly defied the BMP and a major multinational mining company.
According to Madsen, True North’s employee left the site to contact the BMP. This indicated that they had no plans for blasting because a satellite phone was not on the premise. His group continued to dig, surrounded by mountains, snow and the beautiful lake, hearing only the sound of their breathing and the shovel against the earth.
True North’s people returned later that day, photographing their activity.
On the third day, Madsen and his group heard the percussive thump of chopper blades bouncing off the stark mountains.
The helicopter landed close in and BMP officials jumped out with three armed police officers who encircled their group. Madsen described them as aggressive and intimidating in their tone.
In the ensuing discussions, Madsen was told by an official from the BMP, in front of the police, that his network for exportation was too good, because of his connection with Rohtert.
Now, Madsen turned to a policeman and asked if he understood what had been said. The officer told him he could not possibly remember what he had just heard.
Madsen and his group observed the police scurrying about the ruby fields, collecting the red crystals and stuffing them into their own pockets.
The group was presented with a remarkable letter from the official with the BMP addressed to Madsen: he was not allowed to prospect or sell any mineral collected on Greenland.
This letter was the first of its kind in the history of the nation.
Later that morning, Madsen met Davidson. “He was standing with two True North Gem guys and the helicopter pilot working for Air Greenland,” said Madsen. “I asked Davidson if he was coming to my country with his lies and stealing and making war on us for the ruby.”
According to Madsen, Davidson said loudly and emphatically, “This is war!”
In an interview later about the incident published in the local press, Davidson stated that the site was being prepared for blasting. He defended the rights of Inuit to collect rubies, though stated that it seemed “unreasonable” to have prospectors come to their “main discovery site” where they had heavily invested.
He also told Nuuk TV that because they were five people with shovels, instead of two, their activities “were intending commercial effort” rather than “personal use”.
However, no where under Article 32, the code governing the mining of gemstones for Greenland, is there any restriction of of group size, tools used, or quantity taken.
A few months after these events, Madsen met a gemologist hired by the BMP who looked at the rough he had gathered and told him that he was already a millionaire.
From the group of five, Madsen formed the August 16th Union, whose objective was to secure the rights of all Greenlanders to artisanally mine and sell rubies.
In a recent public town meetings, Madsen had asked BMP authorities, with True North officials present, “If I find a ruby and facet it, and it‘s worth a million,” Madsen asked, “Can I export it under article 32?”
Now, the answer is, no.
Until 2006, all Greenlanders had clear rights to mine and sell rubies. All that they needed was an export license which up until that time was easily available.
Permits for export had been granted to the Greenland Stone Club, which the BMP sponsored. They were allowed to export for the Tucson International Gem and Mineral Show, as well as at the Munich Mineral Show, on four occasions between 2001 and 2005.
Madsen also stated that the BMP has stopped all mineral export licenses for other Greenland citizens as well, except for “semi-precious” gems.
This specious distinction between precious and semiprecious is not recognized by the international gem trade, not mentioned under Article 32.
“They don’t know how to handle the case,” explained Madsen. “They promised me an export license but they won’t give one to me.” The rocks collected before August 16th are now, what Madsen calls, ‘outlaw rocks.’
BMP is asking that small scale miners pay the same exploitation fees, 100,000 DKK (about $19,600), as the large scale mining companies.
Soon after the union formed, a United Kingdom jeweler, Greg Valerio, founder of Cred Jewellery, got involved. He had heard about the rubies and visited the country to purchase some. (See accompanying post)
Valerio had pioneered the fair trade mine-to-market concept in the emerging ethical jewelry space. He was a co-founder of the Association of Responsible Mining (ARM), which has developed fair trade gold standards for small scale artisanal mining in South America.
With experience in dealing with governments, corporations and NGOs around the issue of artisan small scale mining, he has thrown himself into the legislative process in support of the 16 August Union.
“What TNG and the BMP are trying to do is so duplicitous,” he explained. “They are trying to appear as a friend of small scale mining, but want them to fulfill a Native stereo type, selling carved low grade ruby trinkets to a nearly non-existent tourist trade and not engage in real economic activity.”
Valerio has teamed up with Madsen. He also has a commercial interest, as the founder of Cred Jewellery, which is establishing a resource based platform for ethical jewelry which can supply the entire sector with precious metal and gems of the highest fair trade standard.
The CEO of True North Gems, Andrew Lee Smith stated that he fully supports the lawful small scale mining and selling of rubies by Greenlanders. “The Union’s issue is with the Greenland government, less so than True North,” he said.
Smith views the accusations of collusion between TNG and BMP against the Inuit’s rights to small scale mining and selling of rubies as absolutely false, and considers the August 16th Union, a radical faction engaging in illegal activities with little support from Greenlanders.
Valerio is not opposed to True North Gem’s mining interests, as long as the Inuit are also able to get a fair share of what is a rightfully theirs. He has been in contact with Greg Davison.
“True North Gems is on the fence,” he said, “claiming that they support indigenous mining issues, but also claiming that they must obey the law. Obeying a bad law is bad business.”
Most Recent Developments
The BMP continues to stonewall Madsen’s export license.
Permits to the Greenland Stone club have also been denied, prompting several of those members to join the August 16th Union, which now numbers forty members.
(What will this little girl’s future be like? Will she benefit from the wealth of her ancestral lands?)
At a meeting on September 18, 2008, between the BMP and the 16 August Union, Madsen was told that he was could not travel within 300 meters of a worksite. He can only take “lesser value” opaque corundum and is absolutely forbidden to ever go to the site between the two lakes again.
Greenlanders are now allowed only to sell semiprecious gems, not precious gems, a specious distinction that is not recognized in the international gem trade.
Beyond Greenland, new sources of high grade rubies remain difficult to locate. Burma has historically provided as much as ninety percent of the world’s rubies, but the US and EU passed laws which make their possession illegal. The jewelry sector is hungry for a new source of for high quality rubies, which can be more valuable than diamonds.
Madsen has hired a lawyer to help him, though he is quickly running out of money. He has circulated a petition on behalf of the August 16th Union, demanding the rights to have small scale mining and selling of rubies as guaranteed under Article 32.
He has proven that his Union is not a radical fringe movement by gathering 2600 signatures on a petition for small scale mining rights in just three weeks. This number represents four and a half percent of the entire nation of 57,000. The petition has drawn another 750 signatures from international supporters who have signed up online.
If Madsen and his 16 August Union, succeed in their goal, it will set precedent in Greenland. The indigenous people will gain the right to have small scale mining on their ancestral homelands.
A Great Sea
The great sea
Has sent me adrift,
It moves me as the week in a great river
Earth and the great weather move me,
Have carried me away
And move my inward parts with joy.
Inuit woman shaman
quoted by Rammussen