Today polishing off our “True Crime” story of the Amber Mafia Wars in Western Ukraine. Most of this illegal amber mining and these shoot-em-ups take place in the province (=Oblast) of Rivne.
Rivne (Russian “Rovno”, Polish Równe) is an administrative area with its center being the historic city of the same name. This whole Western province, currently belonging to the Ukraine, has a rich history as a valuable booty of war at the intersection of magnificent civilizations. As the wiki notes, Rivne Oblast used to part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the 1300’s. It then signed up for the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1569. In 1793, after the Second Partition of Poland, this area became part of the Russian Empire. After World War I and the Russian Revolution, once the dust settled and the various treaties were signed, Równe returned to Mother Poland. Two decades later, during the Nazi occupation, Rivne became the Nazi capital of “German Ukraine”. The Soviet Red Army subsequently drove the Germans out with extreme prejudice. In the postwar machinations and redrawings of various maps throughout Europe; and in the continuing Lenin-Stalin tradition of adding onto Ukraine more and more territories [controversial point, but no time to discuss it here] — this whole area was gifted to the Ukraine. To the chagrin of the Poles.
So, why is Rivne Oblast so valuable? Well, duh! This area is chock full of valuable assets, like people, animals, trees, forests, rivers, lakes, arable soil, everything that humans need to create wealth. Plus Amber.
Since prehistoric times, humans have gone gaga for Amber. Especially Baltic amber, because of its beautiful golden hue:
The Baltic Sea region has been the original source for amber since Prehistoric times. Although it is not known exactly when Baltic amber was first used, it can be linked to the Stone Age populations. Amber of Baltic origin was found in Egyptian tombs that date back to 3200 B.C., establishing the archeological barter and trade routes. Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have some 100 Neolithic burial sites in which amber is included. European sea trade was dominated by the Vikings from 800-1000 A.D., with the “gold from the north”, and Scandinavia continues to be a major exporter of amber today.
So what is Amber? Well, everybody knows that Amber is not a mineral per se, in the same way as, say, gold. Amber is basically fossilized tree resin. The English word “Amber” derives from the Middle Persian “ambar” via the Arabic ‘anbar – عنبر
The Balto-Slavic word for amber (Rusian янтарь — pronounced “yantar” –, Lithuanian gintaras, Latvian dzintars) appears to have a different origin from the English word, and most likely derives from the ancient Phoenician jain-itar (“sea-resin”). I googled the Polish word, Poles say jantar as well, but apparently only in high-fallutin literary use. In everyday speech, Poles say bursztyn, don’t ask me why.
The other interesting thing about Amber, besides its beauty, is that it encases, and fossilizes, prehistoric insects. Which is a great find for biologists, as well as for mad scientists hoping to clone dinosaurs. As everybody knows, prehistoric mosquitos used to bite prehistoric dinosaurs. After feasting on dino-blood, said insects would subsequently get stuck in prehistoric tree resin — ha ha! serves them right! — and then millions of years later we can see them still clearly, beating their little wings and screaming “Help!” in their tiny insect voices, and we laugh heartily at their predicament. The next step, quite obviously, and something that needs to be done as soon as possible, is to clone dinosaurs from the fossilized DNA preserved in the mosquito’s proboscis. And the whole reason I just wrote that entire paragraph, is because I like the word proboscis.
And so, Dear Readers, now that we know some history of this area, and the value of the Amber contained therein, it is time to return to Rivne and see what is going on there with our Ukrainian friends. The good people whom God and Stalin ordained to be the curators of this ancient and valuable gem…
What Happens In Polessye Does Not Stay In Polessye
May 20, 2017 – as mentioned before, the reporter is Olga Kozachenko. Olga explains why the Ukrainian government and police are simply impotent when it comes to dealing with these illegal amber miners and the various armed gangs who control the territory. The gangs enjoy “krysha” (Russian for “protection”) at the highest levels. Olga quotes Sergei Knyazev, Head of Ukraine’s National Police: “Officially our country extracts, per year, 5 tons of amber. And yet on the Gdańsk [Poland] stockmarket, 10 tons are traded per day! And 99% of these sales are of illegally-mined Ukrainian amber!”
Knyazev notes sadly that in the villages of the Polessye region, virtually the entire population is engaged in the illegal extraction of amber. Men and women wade out into the swamps carrying hoses and pumps. Even the children are involved: They use little nets to trap the amber, as their slender fingers comb through the sludge. The universality of this criminality thwarts the police in any attempt to enforce the law. And what is the law? That 5 tons of amber (extracted per year) mentioned by Knyazev is the legal amber. Legal meaning “owned and controlled by the government”.
I am pretty sure on this point. When I first started researching this piece, I wasn’t sure if I would discover that all of Ukraine’s amber is actually owned by some reclusive Russian billionaire squatting in some castle in the English countryside. The world’s media is often shy about specifying who exactly owns which assets on our round blue Earth. Unless, of course, they are trying to out reclusive Russian oligarchs. In this case, I had to rely on hints. Like the “5 legal tons” mentioned by Knyazev, and the fact this legal amber comes out of government owned and controlled amber “factories”, the main one being “Amber Ukraine”, operating in Rivne. Which implies that the government hires legal miners to extract the amber, and that such miners are paid with a regular paycheck, in hryvnas, not in Kalashnikovs.
“Here is an example for you,” Knyazev continues his plaint: “On the White Lake, police discovered 25 pumps. The police started to cart them away. The entire village rose up, surrounded the police. They punctured cop tires faster than the cops could change them. There were 4 cops, versus 100 peasants. So, what were we supposed to do? The important thing is to change the situation, so that we are not pitting police versus people. This conflict only results in shootings. (….) Police cars were set on fire. People were bringing in weapons…”
In essence, Knyazev confided to Olga, he was conceding defeat. In this Amber War, the police and the government LOST, the illegal miners WON. As terms of capitulation, Knyazev proposes, quite sensibly, that “illegal” amber mining be legalized.
In my research I found this interesting piece from National Geographic. It is truly heart-breaking to see the ravages which illegal amber mining has inflicted on the pine and birch forests of Polessye, turning this beautiful hunk of property into a battle-scarred lunarscape. The photos show how it is done: Men blast the ground with high-pressured water hoses (to loosen up the soil), pump out the water (using hand-made pumps made from old car engines); and then sift the debris for lumps containing amber. The wildcatters dig their own channels, destroying valid waterways and loosening topsoil in the process. The damage to the environment is incalculable. But people are getting rich. Even ordinary people. And it isn’t just about putting food on the table: Peasants who used to live on around $2000 a year, are now able to buy fancy houses and cars, and lots of other neat stuff, thanks to the amber.
NG reporter John Wendle hired a couple of native guides, Vlad and Stas, both former cops who quit to join the other side, because it was more lucrative. With a wife and two kids, Vlad couldn’t survive on his cop salary of $150 a month, especially after the Ukainian currency fell against the dollar. Vlad and Stas took Wendle out into the forests to show him how it was done. Pointing at one well-worked pit, where wildcatters had dug through 4 meters of topsoil, Stas commented, “The guys working here pulled $50,000 worth of amber from this one pit in one day.” The average income in the Ukraine is $2100 per year.
And it’s not just about the blasting of the Earth. The illegal gangs appear to engage in their own international trade network, possibly using some of those same ancient routes as in Neolithic times. Stas pulls out his phone and shows Wendle a text message from a Chinese buyer. “Right now the Chinese are paying about $2,000 to $3,000 per kilogram, if you have big stones,” said Stas. How men like Stas get the stones to China is a mystery. Illegal Miners and Distributors and Smugglers, Oh My!
A magazine like National Geographic is at its best when promoting ecology and the environment. It doesn’t always get it right when discussing issues of international geo-politics. Wendle discusses the notion of legalizing the amber mining, but stumbles on the issue of government corruption: “Although there are a few government-controlled mines—the process to get a license to operate a legal mine can take years and is fraught with corruption…” Westies, as soon as they hear that word “corruption”, their brains freeze up, like they just drank a giant Frostie. Like, Corruption is a hopeless barrier, nothing can possibly get done, if there remains even the tiniest chance that some nogoodnik will dip his hand in the cookie jar. Westies have been conditioned, like Pavlov’s dogs, to think of petty corruption (like, say a government official skimming off $1000 from some million-dollar deal) as exactly the same thing as massive corruption — like, say, the amber gangs grossing hundreds of thousands of dollars selling a product which they don’t actually own. Westie propaganda used to recoil in horror at the petty corruption of Soviet times. I like to use this analogy: In Soviet times, a corrupt official used to steal towels from his hotel suite. In post-Soviet times, that same official’s son owns the entire hotel.
“If they legalized the [amber] trade,” Stas pointed out, “a sack worth $1,000 now would drop to around $500, and the government would skim off the remainder for themselves.” Skimming off, as in levying taxes?
Wendle continues to venture into international politics, critizing Ukraine as a “kleptocracy” and mentioning the IMF loans and conditions, as if the IMF were the good guys here. Wendle comes off like a typical schoolmarm Westie chiding the barbarians for their inability to keep their sticky fingers in their own pockets.
Meanwhile, the real issue is not Corruption, so much as good governance. Knyazev is on the right track when he proposes to legalize all amber mining. Legalize, Regulate, and Tax. Oh, and pay a decent wage to your miners.