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.
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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.
The gemstone might be bought and sold several times before it's smuggled to other Ukrainian regions, or across the border to Poland. Then there are those who physically protect the business, usually the police or security services, and those who ensure legal immunity in the courts, such as current or former local prosecutors, if it becomes necessary.
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"All component parts are engaged," said Bedriy, describing the mechanism known locally as Ukraine's "amber mafia".
More recently, the trade recaptured national attention thanks to what observers say has been a redistribution of the spoils among political and criminal groups. Clues have emerged in recent months revealing what sort of players typically pull the strings.
For instance, the ex-deputy head of the regional SBU, who is also the son-in-law of a former deputy governor, is suspected by authorities of overseeing a scheme some critics believe earned up to $75,000 a day, according to local media. The head of Ukraine's Anti-Corruption Bureau recently complained that an investigation into the official was stalled in the general prosecutor's office.
Yet despite the huge sums of money collected by organisers, few of the serious profits trickle down to the tens of thousands of ordinary miners who work in the region, according to former amber miner Oleksandr Vasyliev,.
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Their average wage - about $30 a day, according to various estimates - is far above Ukrainian standards, but that's not factoring in the bribes that often have to be paid just to gain access to the fields.
For most, extraction remains the only viable way to make ends meet in the impoverished region. "Even if they make the absolute minimum," said Vasyliev, who was elected to the regional council last year, "people will still come out to work because they've got nowhere else to go."
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Vasyliev himself has been accused of controlling part of the business in his home district, but denies the charge and claims it's a response to his efforts to legalise mining. On a dreary April morning, he criticised what he claims is a broader trend of venal officials profiting from the country's lack of transparency.
"That's how we're trotting into Europe," he said bitterly. "By quietly robbing our own people."
Nevertheless, Ukrainian law enforcement is making a new push to crack down on the business. To coordinate the fight, the reformed National Police of Ukraine has set up a special task force near the epicentre of illegal mining, some 90km north of Rivne's eponymous regional capital.
Serhiy Knyazev, the newly installed regional police chief, said local law enforcement should target the higher echelons of the corrupt hierarchy instead of its workforce. Arresting common miners and confiscating their equipment will only further fuel local anger, he said.
"People will simply rise up," said Knyazev, whose previous assignment included fighting cigarette smuggling in another Ukrainian region.
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That's exactly what happened here in Klesiv, a humdrum settlement of about 4,000, earlier this year. Clashes erupted between the police and miners during an attempt to shut down a local extraction site. While tensions have since calmed, a different order prevails elsewhere.
According to Leontiyuk, the local journalist, mining villages in more remote parts of the region are under such rigid control by miners and armed gangs that the outnumbered and under-equipped police don't even bother entering.
"People exercise their impunity there, and total impunity at that," he said. "Because objectively speaking, we just don't have a force that could compel them to quit mining."
The virtual anarchy that pervades this amber-rich part of Ukraine has even earned it a curious nickname: the "People's Republic of Amber," a nod to the pro-Russian separatist regions of eastern Ukraine.
Vasyliev believes legislation would boost the local economy and help cut out corruption by encouraging miners to police one another. While they wait for politicians in Kiev to act, places such as Klesiv are sliding deeper into a cycle of destitution and lawlessness.
"If Johnny will be able to do this legally, but Pete wants to keep mining somewhere illegally, then believe me, Johnny won't let him do it," he said. "But when neither Johnny nor Pete have the opportunity, that's when you have a problem."
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Source: Al Jazeera