Il­le­gal am­ber min­ers are damaging Ukraine’s en­vi­ron­ment

De­spite a ban on min­ing, an il­le­gal trade in am­ber is flour­ish­ing “Here I can make in one day what I was earn­ing in a month”

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Just out­side the west­ern Ukrainian vil­lage of Kukhit­ska Volya, the dense for­est turns into a moon­scape of mud­filled craters and mu­ti­lated trees. The lo­cals call the place a “Klondike,” an il­le­gal mine where hun­dreds of men and women dig am­ber—the fos­silized resin of trees that died 40 mil­lion years ago—out of the swampy soil. Us­ing gaspow­ered pumps, the min­ers in­ject water 10 to 20 feet into the ground, dis­lodg­ing dirt and the oc­ca­sional load of honey-hued gems. As word spreads of the ap­proach of an un­fa­mil­iar car, the work­ers hastily load their equip­ment onto trucks and speed off. In less than five min­utes, ev­ery­one is gone.

The site is one of scores of Ukrainian am­ber fields where wild­cat prospec­tors dig up the stones. The State Ge­ol­ogy Com­mit­tee es­ti­mates the coun­try has as much as 15,000 tons of am­ber buried in its west­ern forests, and with vir­tu­ally no law en­force­ment—and what par­tic­i­pants say are cor­rupt lo­cal of­fi­cials—il­le­gal min­ing has sup­planted more ex­pen­sive le­gal meth­ods of ex­tract­ing am­ber. Au­thor­i­ties say the il­licit trade costs Ukraine hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars a year in lost taxes as well as un­told en­vi­ron­men­tal dam­age. “The land is ru­ined,” says Mykhaylo Bo­yarkin, the head of the ge­ol­ogy com­mit­tee. “No­body will want to in­vest here.”

Re­cent clashes be­tween po­lice and the in­creas­ingly brazen wild­cat­ters have spurred Pres­i­dent Petro Poroshenko to send spe­cial troops to tackle the trade. But with most of the mines in re­mote ru­ral ar­eas ac­ces­si­ble only by pot­holed dirt paths and watch­ful lo­cals ready to sound an alarm at the first sight of strangers, there’s lit­tle the po­lice can do. “It’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to catch them,” says Ok­sana Say­chyshyna, a po­lice of­fi­cer in the re­gion of Rivne, where many of the most de­struc­tive am­ber mines are lo­cated. “Even if we find out where they’re work­ing, by the time we get there they have plenty of time to run into the woods and hide.”

Lo­cals see the mines as the only way to make a liv­ing. The prospec­tors work in teams of about a half­dozen peo­ple who op­er­ate a pump and share the booty. Svit­lana, a 45-yearold for­mer kin­der­garten teacher, has been work­ing at the Klondike for more than a year. Bun­dled in khaki work clothes, she says her monthly wage of 1,200 hryv­nia ($48) gave her no choice but to quit her day job. “Here I can make in one day what I was earn­ing in a month,” she says, skim­ming the muddy wa­ters with a net in search of

loose am­ber stones. Al­though she’s afraid of drown­ing in a mud hole, Svit­lana says she won’t go back to her old job. “The state can’t take care of us, so we have to take care of our­selves,” she says. Svit­lana, who de­clined to pro­vide her fam­ily name, says po­lice of­fer 12 hours of “pro­tec­tion”—the right not to be ha­rassed while they race to ex­tract am­ber—for $500 per pump. The po­lice didn’t re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

The trade has taken off in the past three years as ex­ports to China have soared, with prices up roughly five­fold, to as much as $5,000 per pound, min­ers say. The buy­ers strike deals with lo­cals in their homes, says Ihor, a burly man dressed in army fa­tigues with his face cov­ered by a green-knit bal­a­clava, who helps or­ga­nize the mine. “We have all kinds com­ing here: from Kiev, from Poland, even from China,” he says.

The il­le­gal min­ing dam­ages many of the stones and de­presses prices, ul­ti­mately hurt­ing the prospec­tors, says Dmytro Tiaglii, di­rec­tor of Bur­shtyn Ukrainy, the state-con­trolled am­ber pro­ducer. Water ex­trac­tion cracks the am­ber, re­duc­ing its value, and min­ers typ­i­cally re­cover less than three-quar­ters of a de­posit, he says. The le­gal ex­ca­va­tion method of care­fully re­mov­ing lay­ers and sift­ing the soil with sieves can yield al­most all of the stone in larger pieces. Tiaglii says his com­pany, which pol­ishes and fin­ishes the stones but isn’t per­mit­ted to mine, has had trou­ble find­ing enough sup­plies and now even im­ports some am­ber from Poland. With vir­tu­ally no le­gal min­ing in Ukraine, his ar­ti­sans have left for more lu­cra­tive work, ei­ther with the il­le­gal min­ers or across the bor­der in Poland.

Many prospec­tors say min­ing should be le­gal­ized and that they would pay taxes as long as most of the money stayed in their re­gion. “What I want is for peo­ple to have lit­tle busi­nesses where they can mine am­ber legally,” says Olek­sandr Vasiliev, a for­mer il­le­gal miner who serves on the re­gional coun­cil in Rivne. In the mean­time, the min­ers—and their prof­its—have started to sup­plant the state. They or­ga­nized a col­lec­tion for wounded sol­diers, built a play­ground in a lo­cal park, and funded the constructi­on of a church whose gold and blue onion domes shine proudly above a nearby vil­lage. There’s still scaf­fold­ing in­side, but Fa­ther Ro­man, the young priest in a black robe who over­sees the constructi­on, says he hopes to see it fin­ished by the end of the year—“if the boys help.” If, that is, the am­ber min­ers chip in. Ladka Bauerova and Kateryna Choursina

Fear­ing a po­lice raid, il­le­gal am­ber min­ers in west­ern Ukraine scat­ter

Wild­cat re­ward

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