Illegal Amber Mining: Environmental Disaster in Western Ukraine

1.10.2017 - Volhynia, Rivne Oblast, Zhytomyr Oblast

Ukraine has large amber deposits. An estimated 150 tonnes of amber worth almost half a billion US dollars is extracted there annually. Of this, only four tonnes are legally acquired. Areas with high unemployment in the Zhytomyr Oblast, Rivne Oblast and Volhynia in the last years dominated groups that operate independently of all state structures. Armed gangs are depriving the state budget of millions of hryvnias a day, villages fighting for territories, mafias corrupting the police, authorities and self-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 become out of the hands of the Kiev government: amber Clondike.

Economic separatism

The cheapest amber that can be bought in Europe comes from forests in Western Ukraine. Most of the mined raw materials are smuggled abroad, including China, Japan, the Middle East or the European Union. In large quantities they are exported to Poland and Slovakia. The price of amber ranges from several hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on the quality and size. Ordinary miners can earn up to $ 50,000 a year, bosses of the gangs can earn that amount per day. After 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 value, but occasionally people can find amber weighing several kilograms. Then one does not have to work for several years, "says Ukrainian investigative journalist Denis Kazanskyi.

Technology of mining

Everyone can benefit who the armed gangs will allow. 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 mafia the forest in the foreseeable amber deposit is burned or chopped, a dredger digs a canal, and then the water from the nearest water source is pumped. Groups of miners dig a pit deep up to 10 meters. Pits are swamped with water, the amber rises to the surface, and the miners are looking for it in the water. After exploiting the mining place, 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 with sand and clay remain.

Environmental disaster

Only in a few years the miners burned and harvested already hundreds of acres of forest in the Zhytomyr Oblast, Rivne Oblast and Volhynia. According to local ecologists, groundwater and rivers have been polluted. Areas are due to the absence of trees, soil litter and other vegetation endangered by soil erosion. In the case of rain, 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 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 that the police seized the pumps, into which many put all their savings. Thus, the "Amber People's Republic" is likely to remain out of control of the Ukrainian government for a long time.

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