09:52 Apr. 29, 2016
Despite a ban on mining, an illegal trade in amber is flourishing
Just outside the western Ukrainian village of Kukhitska Volya, the dense forest turns into a moonscape of mud-filled 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 gas-powered 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."