Ukraine has large amber deposits. An estimated 150 tonnes of amber worth almost half a billion US dollars are extracted there annually. Of this, only four tonnes are legally acquired. In recent years areas with high unemployment in the Zhytomyr Oblast, Rivne Oblast, and Volhynia have been dominated by groups that operate independently of all state structures. Armed gangs are depriving the state budget of millions of hryvnias a day, with villages fighting for territory, and mafias corrupting the police, authorities, and local government. In addition to the separatist Donetsk and Luhansk Republics and parts of Transcarpathia, which are under the control of criminal gangs illegally harvesting wood, there is currently another entity in Ukraine that has moved out of the control of the Kyiv government: the amber Klondike.
The cheapest amber that can be bought in Europe comes from forests in Western Ukraine. Most of the raw materials that are mined are smuggled abroad, including to China, Japan, the Middle East, and the European Union. They are exported to Poland and Slovakia in large quantities. The price of amber ranges from a few hundred up to several thousand dollars, depending on the quality and size. Ordinary miners can earn up to $50,000 a year, while the bosses of the gangs can earn that amount in a day. Since 2014, illegal exploitation has grown to such an extent that the population of many villages has become addicted to it because of extreme unemployment in the region. “Mining is a lottery and no one knows in advance how much amber will be found. Small pieces do not have that high a value, but occasionally people can find amber weighing several kilograms. Then one does not have to work for several years,” says the Ukrainian investigative journalist Denis Kazanskyi.
Technology of mining
Everyone who the armed gangs will allow can benefit. The amber is close to the surface, so a shovel is often a sufficient tool for local people to make a fortune. In the highly organized mining areas controlled by the mafia the forest in the area where an amber deposit is anticipated is burned or chopped down, a dredger digs a channel, and then water is pumped from the nearest water source. Groups of miners dig a pit up to 10 metres deep. The pits are flooded with water, the amber rises to the surface, and the miners look for it in the water. After exploiting the mining site, they leave. In the mining sites where the forest used to be, the destruction of the fertile layer of the earth is caused by flooding, and only pits full of sand and clay remain.
In just a few years the miners have already burned and harvested hundreds of acres of forest in the Zhytomyr Oblast, Rivne Oblast, and Volhynia. According to local ecologists, groundwater and rivers have been polluted. Because of the absence of trees, soil litter, and other vegetation, whole areas are endangered by soil erosion. If it rains, the topsoil just runs off into rivers and streams, and there is no residual vegetation in these areas to help protect nearby communities from flooding.
Upon his inauguration, President Poroshenko called the illegal mining of amber a serious problem and initiated a police intervention. The villagers in one of the districts, however, revolted, and several people were shot dead by the police. The villagers didn’t agree with the police seizing the pumps, into which many had put all their savings. Thus, the “Amber People’s Republic” is likely to remain uncontrolled by the Ukrainian government for a long time.