Ukraine mafia score big with illegal amber mines

Miners dig for amber. This screenshot is from footage filmed by activists from the AutoMaidan group.
Miners dig for amber. This screenshot is from footage filmed by activists from the AutoMaidan group.


In northwestern Ukraine, hundreds of acres of forest have been destroyed by illegal amber mining. This precious stone, which derives from fossilized tree sap, sells for a lot of money on the black market. This illegal trade has blossomed in the atmosphere of the general chaos that has enveloped the country since widespread protests in 2014 — and is now spiralling out of control.

The majestic pine forests of northwestern Ukraine, filled with fir trees that often stand several dozen metres tall, have been under attack since 2014. Hundreds of acres of forest have been cleared since 2014, when the power balance in the country was upset by huge protests that took place in Kiev’s Maidan Square. The unrest triggered a series of events leading to the removal of former president Viktor Yanukovich. However, since then, Ukraine’s new government has struggled to show any real authority.

While still in power, Yanukovich presided over a widespread system of corruption that held a tight grip on both legal and illegal mining operations in the country, according to several different sources interviewed by FRANCE 24. Since his departure, however, disorder has spread across the country and the government’s control over police, border guards and park rangers has weakened.

This video was filmed on March 11, 2016 in the Rivne region by activists from AutoMaidan, an ongoing social movement in Ukraine that grew out of the massive protests in Maidan Square in Kiev in 2013 and 2014.

In amber-rich regions, locals have rushed to extract the precious stones from beneath the forest floor without taking safety precautions into account. At the same time, the mafia have taken control of a lucrative market that they now run almost exclusively.

Amber, a striking yellow or brown stone that is made from fossilised resin, is mostly used for making jewelry, decorative objects and religious icons. Amber is extremely popular in China and most of the amber produced in this part of Ukraine is then purchased by Chinese traffickers, according to sources who spoke to FRANCE 24.

Amber can be a wide range of different colours. This photo was posted on January 26, 2017 on a private Instagram account followed by people involved in illegal mining operations in Ukraine.

People who work in the illicit amber trade can make much more money than the average Ukrainian salary. As a result, a large portion of the population of the Rivne, Jytomyr and Volhynie regions, located on the border with Belarus, now make their living this way, according to our Observer, Inna Muliavka.

In Muliavka’s small village, Dubrovytsia, half of the local population depends on revenue from the amber trade, said a local police official who spoke to FRANCE 24.

“Amber is an illness"

Our Observer, Inna Muliavka, grew up in Dubrovytsia before moving to a larger neighbouring town, Rivne, to go to university. She now works at Ecoclub, an environmental association in Rivne.

In the town where I grew up, amber is an illness. People go crazy and do anything. They are destroying nature and spending money like it is water. Before, this area was very poor. Then huge amounts of money started flowing in. It happened from one day to the next. People started building huge new houses in the area. Now, you see people driving around big, flashy 4x4s: that’s the sign of the “new rich” who’ve made it big in the amber trade.

The mines pockmark the forests

Acres and acres of pine trees have been chopped down, cut into pieces, and hauled off in trucks bound for the big cities. Once the land is cleared, the miners start digging holes of various sizes.

In this video, young miners busy injecting water into the soil show off the amber that they just found. This video was published on YouTube on February 29, 2016.

Miners employed by a local mafia work in small groups to drill holes using water pumps. They dig holes that measure about three metres across and go about four metres deep. Independent artisanal miners make much smaller holes using a manual drill.

Miners use water pumps that run on gas as well as pipes to inject water into the soil. These four photos were posted on January 25, 2017 on the Instagram account for the community of amber workers.

Amber is lightweight enough to float, so miners inject water into the soil to create mud and cause the amber to rise to the surface. They get the water from neighbouring rivers or fill large reservoirs dug directly in the soil.

Hundreds of miners try to extract amber using nets and shovels in a forest near Klessiv (in Rivne). This video was published in June 2015.

A lucrative but corrupt system

Two miners take a selfie with a revolver in the forest. Photo posted on the same Instagram account on January 6, 2017. .

All of this activity is illegal. Only three companies — two public and one private — have government permission to exploit the amber in this region. But we are in Ukraine, so the miners bribe the police on a daily basis. Most of the time, they give it directly to the police or forest rangers. Sometimes, they also have to bribe a powerful local mafia.

Several pieces of amber that were supposedly found in a village called Velykyi Zholudsk (Rivne) are weighed and measured before being sold. This photo was posted on Instagram on January 27, 2017.

Of course, none of this money goes back to the community. The state loses close to 27 million hryvnias each day [Editor’s note: equivalent to just under a million euros] in the three regions where the amber trade exists.

Once the stones have been extracted, they are then sold in several locations throughout town, which are kept secret. The price depends on the size of the stone (bigger being more expensive) as well as its special features — for example, if it has insects inside it. The price for amber varies wildly and can range from $150 to $4,500 per kilo [Between 140 and 4,200 euros].

A threatened ecosystem

This Google satellite image shows the illegal mines that have led to deforestation in the land near the small hamlet of Olevsiivka in the Rivne region. If you zoom, you can see the actual holes that make up the mines.

Aside from fueling the mafia and corruption that blight our country, these mines also destroy the environment. The trees are chopped down and both groundwater and the rivers are polluted. Wild plants are disappearing. VIllagers can no longer gather wild blueberries or mushrooms. Last year, a woman died after falling into a mine and it is common to find animals who drown in this way, too.

Stirring up memories of Chernobyl

In 1986, the Rivne region was badly affected by the radioactive cloud that followed the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. A layer of radioactive residue covered the ground and seeped into the soil. Every year, it sinks another four or five centimeters. It is now buried about two metres below the surface.

Two miners dig a hole that is a few metres deep.

This photo was posted on the same Instagram account on December 19, 2016.

When the miners stir up the earth, the dust goes into the air and people in the neighbouring villages breathe it in. There seems to be a rise in cases of thyroid cancer amongst local people, though we don’t yet have numbers on this [Editor’s note: Thyroid cancer was one of the most common ailments to afflict people who had been exposed to the Chernobyl disaster. FRANCE 24 spoke to a local representative who also mentioned an increase in instances of this cancer, though he did not have numbers or scientific study to back up these claims].

University graduates becoming independent miners

I am trying to make all of my friends back in Dubrovytsia understand this situation. Even though some of them have university degrees, many of them have now gone back to the village to become artisanal miners. They carry out the back-breaking work of digging all through winter.

A young miner took this selfie as his colleagues work. This photo was published on Instagram on January 26, 2017.

Why? They do it because they don’t have any opportunities for the future and amber is the best way to make money in the region.

For example, the average salary of a cashier in a supermarket is about 83 hryvnias per day [Equivalent to 2.86 euros], while someone working as a driver for one of the large mining operations run by the mafia can earn 700 hryvnias a day [24 euros].

Ukranian president Petro Poroshenko announced the launch of a campaign against illegal mining in a televised address in July 2015. In that speech, he said that 90% of Ukrainian amber was illegally extracted.

Article written in collaboration with Emma Donada.