Illegal prospectors’ amber "Klondikes" create moonscapes in Ukraine amid China demand - media

13:00, 25 December 2017

Daily raids are set up daily on the outskirts of the village of Kryvytsya and nearby settlements in northwestern Ukraine’s Rivne region to catch locals red-handed mining amber illegally, the Japan Times wrote in a report.

Once a scenic forest area, the site which locals call a “Klondike” has been turned into a moonscape with wet marshy sand on the surface and man-made, funnel-like pits scattered for hundreds of meters around, evidence of work by hundreds of illicit prospectors, the Japan Times reported.

This is one of a number of amber fields in Ukraine, which has the world’s second-largest reserves of amber — some 15,000 tonnes — after Russia, according to Ukraine’s state geology committee.

Read alsoPolice seize over one tonne of amber in Volyn regionAs prices for amber have quadrupled in recent years, fueled by demand from China, Ukraine has suffered from an illegal mining crisis.

Legal mining in the country produced just 4 tonnes of the mineral in 2015, according to the most recent available figures, while unlawful methods of amber extraction have reaped 120 to 300 tonnes annually in recent years, said the geology committee.

“The state suffers missed financial opportunities that are huge. In addition, we can already talk about an environmental disaster,” it said in a written comment to AFP.

Prospecting for amber involves applying high-pressure water to the ground. That loosens the amber, which then floats to the surface, but also erodes the fertile topsoil to the point that trees can no longer grow there. Amber poachers have also cleared huge plots of forest in order to ease access to amber-rich sites.

Illegal prospectors admit they cause damage but say the work is the only way to make ends meet in a deprived region.

Agreeing to be filmed only with his back to the camera, the former assistant manager in a Kyiv-based trade company said his monthly salary was about UAH 6,000 hryvnia ($220), but at the “Klondike” he managed to earn $300 in the first five days.

Working in groups of five to 10 people, the miners use powerful homemade pumps and thick hoses to funnel water to a depth of 10 meters (33 feet) in the ground, wash out a dirty mixture of clay, sand and stones and then finally sift from it the coveted gems.

Read alsoOperation "Amber": Prosecutor detained in Rivne regionAs soon as prospectors get information about an approaching police car, it takes just a few minutes for them to turn off the equipment and vanish.

A 200-strong police team was deployed in the region to reinforce the Rivne regional law enforcement since March but they don’t often manage to detain the amber hunters, who work in remote areas.

Authorities in the troubled region are considering legalizing prospecting as a possible solution to the problem, by way of encouraging miners to pay taxes and make the procedure less harmful.

But the draft law aimed at simplifying the bureaucratized procedure for obtaining mining permits has got stuck in Ukraine’s parliament.

“The bill probably does not solve all the problems at once,” concedes Rivne regional deputy governor Igor Tymoshenko.

But he hopes that it could “create legal work places and change the mining methods that are wreaking irreversible damage on this land.”

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