To the Inuit in Greenland, a place where the sun may only rise for a few hours a day, the ruby held the divine flame that never goes out.
Niels Madsen knew where the crystal sparkled out of the earth like red stars in the dark arctic night. This particular location, a peninsula of land between two deep arctic blue lakes, called to him.
For centuries, rubies had been scooped up by his ancestors while they were out on the land, hunting, fishing, or gathering berries—a right that was protected by native tradition and the Greenlandic Constitution.
Now these rights were challenged by Greenland’s Bureau of Minerals and Petroleum (BMP), which sought to maintain the Danish colonial framework.
Just by putting a shovel into the earth, Madsen would begin a process that would expose to the world the disenfranchisement of Native Greenlanders from the resources on their communally owned lands.
The stakes were very high. With the global warming melting glaciers, rubies, sapphires, and diamonds had recently been discovered in the far north.
According to geologists who mapped out the initial ruby discovery, deposits of ruby in Greenland are quite high grade, relatively large, numerous, and on par with good corundum from Burma, which has historically produced some 80 percent of the global ruby supply.
Since Burmese gems of all kinds, including ruby, are now being boycotted, jewelers in the United States and the EU are looking for a new, ethical source of high-quality rubies.
The Call of the Divine Flame
For Madsen, the only alternative was to take direct action against the colonial government to maintain his rights.
A Canadian mining company, True North Gems, Inc. (TNG), had already begun exporting, for “testing purposes,” Greenland rubies to facilities in North America, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. Nobody knew how many tons of rubies were already gone.
“I compare it to a cruise ship with tourists coming into a Greenlanders home, taking the TV, nice table, and stereo while I get paid only for the grunt work of carrying it out to the ship,” said Madsen.
On Aug. 14, 2007, Madsen, his sister, and three friends sailed six hours south from the village of Qeqertarsuatsiaat in a fishing boat, trolling through the cold waters along the Greenland coast.
Madsen had been taught to see the new ruby deposits by geologists, and by the old men in the village, some of whom had been working rubies for decades.
Until 2007, the Canadian mining company had enjoyed an excellent working relationship with the Inuit community in Fiskenaesset. Then things changed when new management took over.
When Madsen reached the shoreline, the prospectors traveled quickly overland, with shovels, tents, stoves, and food. They planned to stay a few days to fish and gather rubies as Inuit always had.
It was approximately 11 a.m. when they arrived on the crest of Aappaluttoq Ridge. The Canadians, who had already arrived by helicopter, were busy drilling and chain sawing.
Madsen and his friends began to dig where they had in the past. This was the first time Inuit had openly challenged the colonial BMP and a major multinational mining company.
When Madsen was confronted by TNG personnel, he claimed his aboriginal rights. TNG was operating under an exploration license, and not a legitimate mining claim. Madsen’s prospecting was entirely legal under Section 32 of the Greenland Mineral Code.
TNG personnel left the site and about 48 hours later, on Aug. 16, Madsen and his group heard the echo of the chopper blades bouncing off the mountains, headed their way. Greenland Home Rule Government officials soon jumped out of the helicopter along with three armed police officers.
Madsen was told to leave the site. He was presented with an official letter from the BMP, the first of its kind in the history of Greenland. He was not allowed to prospect or to sell any minerals collected anywhere on Greenland.
Up until 2007, Inuit did not need permits for mining rubies, only for export. The BMP actually encouraged small scale mining and had even sponsored the Greenland Stone Club’s exhibit at the Tucson International Gem and Mineral Show in 2001 and 2002.
Activities of the Union
From the initial confrontation on Aappaluttoq Ridge, Madsen and his friends formed the 16th August Union which now has a six-member board, about 40 dedicated organizers.
BMP and TNG attempted to portray the 16th August Union as a radical fringe group, intent on exploiting Greenlandic rubies for personal gain. But over 3,500 Greenlanders, out of a total population of just 57,000 on the island, have signed an electronic petition (http://www.fairjewelry.org/2008/09/inuits-from-greenland-ask-you-to-support-their-mining-rights/) to secure access to the resources on their land.
The 16th August Union, which quickly gained widespread support in the international gemstone community, sought to create an open and public dialogue with the BMP to establish new rules for individual prospectors.
“We have never been opposed the large scale mining of rubies,” said Madsen, “we just want to rights to mine the smaller deposits.” Many ruby sites on Greenland are small and closely spaced, ideal for one family or one village to work by hand.
As new rules for small-scale mining were being drafted by the Home Rule Government, the BMP sought public comment. The Union enlisted the help of Greg Valerio, a U.K. jeweler and fair trade activist.
Valerio, who is a widely recognized expert on international small-scale mining issues, helped the Union with a draft proposal to the BMP.
In mid-March, 2009, the BMP issued a new set of rules which arbitrarily reversed the national policy toward small scale prospectors. Henceforth, they require significant investment, attorneys, feasibility studies, and reports just to collect quality ruby material while fishing or hunting.
“The actions of the BMP and their legal team demonstrate a fundamental disrespect for the Inuit, a total lack of experience in facilitating small scale mining and a level of economic discrimination that breaches the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” said Valerio. “These are not the policies or actions of intelligent people.”
Madsen plans to continue fighting for the right to collect and sell rubies from small mining claims.
“Right now, every ruby that comes out of Greenland through TNG or any other large scale operation is an apartheid ruby,” he said.
Greenland is set to end their colonial relationship with Denmark on June 21 of this year and to expand their own home rule government with considerably more local control. But given the newly discovered rich gemstone deposits, anything could happen.
Marc Choyt is a freelance journalist and the publisher of the blog, www.fairjewelry.org, which covers fair trade jewelry issues.