Inside Ukraine’s ‘amber mafia’ – by Dan Peleschuk (Al – July 4, 2016)

Amber trade booms in northwestern Ukraine, but a shadowy criminal network largely benefits over thousands of miners.

Klesiv, Ukraine – Trundling along the decrepit roads of this remote corner of northwestern Ukraine, past dreary villages and decaying bus stops, few would suspect that the ground beneath is abundant with amber, a gemstone valued around the world as jewellery.

In reality, the business here is booming – but the profits are whisked away into the shadows. The vast majority of the poorly regulated industry operates outside state control, funnelling hundreds of million dollars each year into the hands of illegal miners, smugglers and, critics say, the politicians and armed gangs who run the racket.

“The closer you are to the trafficking, the more money it makes you,” said local investigative journalist Dmytro Leontiyuk. As Ukraine struggles to shake off its reputation as Europe’s most corrupt country, authorities here are proving how hard that can be by failing to rein in a lucrative trade that deprives the state of desperately needed cash.

Currently, only a handful of firms hold extraction rights. Officials say up to 300 tonnes are extracted from this part of Ukraine each year, feeding demand from buyers from as far away as China and the Middle East.

Activists say effective legislation would be a first step in regulating the business, even if few believe it would change things overnight. But a draft law legalising amber extraction is still sitting in parliament.

Meanwhile, brigades of miners toil in forests here in the Rivne region, and two neighbouring regions, are ravaging thousands of hectares of local land by uprooting trees and digging out amber from the soil.

Vasyl Bedriy, head of the regional branch of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), said they are only one part of a sophisticated and wide-ranging network.

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