Amber is a precious resource that is present in the soils of certain forests and is used for jewelry and for many other purposes. Amber is in great demand in Europe, China, and in the Middle East.
Unfortunately, in recent years, there has been an increase in illegal amber mining activities in the Ukrainian that is leading to the deforestation of the country’s treasured forests . The deforestation activities facilitate the mining of the amber that lies close to the soil surface of the forest floor.
This illegal amber mining has even been known to occur in some protected areas. The deforestation often occurs through the use of slash and burn techniques, which can be particularly destructive to these forest ecosystems, and the mining activities often leave the forests so damaged that it becomes very difficult to restore them.
What is amber stone made of?
Amber, also called succinite, is not a true rock or crystal, but is actually formed from the fossilized resin (not sap) of both ancient coniferous and deciduous trees. Amber takes millions of years to harden .
Resin is thought to be secreted by and dripped down trees in response to a wound such as a broken branch, or to protect the tree from diseases and from being injured by insects and fungi.
As the resin drips down a tree’s trunk and into its internal fissures, debris such as seeds, leaves, feathers, and insects may become buried in the resin.
When a tree dies and falls down to the ground, the resin remains and continues to harden from the heat and the pressure that is generated as it is buried under multiple layers of vegetation, soil, and water (in some cases). By the time that the resin has completely hardened, millions of years have passed.
Because the resin is sticky in the beginning, plants and animal parts can become entrapped and are later fossilized. Intact specimens preserved in amber have allowed scientists to learn more about what the Earth was like when it was younger.
What is amber used for?
Amber has been prized for thousands of years by humans because of its beauty.
The Ancient Greeks prized amber, believing that it promoted health and kept evil spirits away. Amber beads were discovered near Stonehenge, England in graves that date back 3,550 years ago, and amber beads, amulets, and carvings have been found during archeological digs in northern Europe, the Mediterranean, and Asia .
More modern uses of amber include jewelry, smoking articles such as cigar/cigarette holders and mouthpieces for pipes, objects of art, and devotional articles such as Buddhist rosaries, sacred figures, and amulets. In the St. Brygida Church in Golausk, Poland, amber was even used as a building material .
A few fun facts about amber
- Amber is found in a variety of colors, from cloudy white, to clear yellow, to nearly black.
- Baltic amber, a type of amber found near the Baltic Sea, contains succinic acid, which is claimed to block pain and decrease inflammation in the body .
- Amber received a great deal of attention in the film Jurassic Park as the source of dinosaur DNA that all of the dinosaurs in the park were created from. However, according to scientists, ancient DNA structures are not preserved very well within amber .
The negative environmental impacts of amber mining
The primary negative environmental impacts of amber mining in the Ukraine are due to the deforestation that occurs as people work to uncover the amber from the soil.
These negative impacts include:
#1 Soil erosion and reduced watershed protection
Soil erosion is likely to happen because there are no more trees, soil litter, or other vegetation to hold in and protect the soil.
When it rains, topsoil just runs off into rivers and streams, and there is no remaining vegetation in these areas to help protect nearby communities from flooding.
Additional damage to soils happens when vehicles need to access the area of mining and increased human activity strips off the organic top soil layer, leaving the soils more vulnerable and exposed to elements.
#2 Loss of forest habitat and habitat fragmentation
The loss of forest habitat leads to a reduction in plant and wildlife populations, and can result in an overall loss of biodiversity, some of which may not easily rebound even if the forests regrow. The wildlife that are present in these forest ecosystems may become more vulnerable to predation and to hunting from people.
As forest habitat becomes increasingly fragmented, the remaining intact forest habitat becomes more vulnerable to fires and other destructive weather events, and the fragmented forests result in fragmented wildlife populations that are isolated from each other.
#3 Negative impacts on local and regional water cycles
When large numbers of trees are cut down in forests, the local precipitation and water cycles are impacted because trees help to retain moisture in the atmosphere, facilitating precipitation events like rain.
With fewer trees, an area may become much more vulnerable to drought due to altered precipitation cycles.
#4 Increased carbon emissions
As trees are removed, there are fewer opportunities to sequester carbon, and by burning the trees, the carbon that that trees were storing is released into the atmosphere, increasing the total levels of carbon emissions in the atmosphere.
It has been estimated that deforestation around the world today contributes to 15% of greenhouse gases globally .
Why is amber mining happening?
Poor people can earn a lot of money through the illegal amber mining that is often not otherwise possible. The Ukrainian people have struggled with a great deal of war, conflict, and instability in their lives, and the $500 million per year illegal amber mining activities allows them to support their families and find a way out of poverty .
In some cases, the corruption of local government officials has facilitated these illegal amber mining activities .
Some solutions to reduce unsustainable amber mining
Fortunately, the Ukrainian national government has recently become aware of these issues and is now starting to take action on the illegal and destructive amber mining activities. There are raids of these illegal amber mining operations going on as well as a confiscation of illegal amber .
It is important to create effective laws, policies, and implementation that crack down on illegal amber mining in the Ukraine, and to encourage sustainable ways of obtaining amber that aren’t destructive to the environment.
It is important to educate the Ukrainian public about the negative environmental impacts of these destructive amber mining activities and how such activities can hurt themselves and their communities in the long term.
It is also important to work on the demand side of the amber supply chain by increasing public and buyer awareness of these deforestation issues surrounding the mining of amber. To facilitate best practices in amber production, a third-party certification scheme could be created to certify sustainably produced amber, as is currently being done in other industries such as in the forestry industry and in the palm oil industry.
Because much of this illegal and destructive amber mining is largely occurring due to poverty situations, there should also be community development resources created for these communities that sustainably provide a living wage and can assist people in lifting themselves out of poverty.