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Rich Cache of Amber Mined in Caribbean


SANTIAGO, Dominican Republic - High in the hills surrounding this city in the
Cibao Valley, hundreds of narrow openings tunnel into the world's second-richest
cache of amber.

For scientists, the ancient tree resin found in the tunnels brings a glimpse
into primeval life in the West Indies through perfectly preserved prehistoric

For mine owners like Ramon Martinez, the tunnels mean annual sales of about
$25,000 in a country where the per-capita income is less than $500 a year.

For amber miners and their families, the tunnels mean three meals a day and
perpetuation of a family occupation.

Gemlike in its rich shades of gold, orange, brown and, rarely, blue, the
fossilized tree sap has been used as a decoration and good-luck charm since the
Stone Age.

The largest and most accessible source is the Baltic coast, where resin is
easily mined in shoreline deposits and sometimes even washes up on beaches.

Amber is also mined in southeastern Mexico, Canada, China, the Middle East,
Alaska, Australia and New Zealand.

But it is in the dense subtropical hills of this poor Caribbean country that
some of the most valuable amber samples - those containing the prehistoric
insects - are found.

Millions of years ago, trees from now-vanished forests produced a sticky resin
that slowly hardened into iridescent clumps. Often the hardening sap became a
premature tomb for an unlucky grasshopper or tick.

Today, a piece of amber with such contents is worth thousands of dollars. A
rock with a 30 million-year-old lizard trapped inside is worth about $15,000,
Martinez says.

Not long ago, Dominican miners tossed out such pieces, believing them to be
flawed and worthless. Now, proceeds from such a find can feed a miner's family
for months.

Martinez employs five teams of seven or eight men to extract amber from his
mines. Dominican miners earn about $10 a day, according to some industry sources
- twice the average salary of their counterparts in the sugar cane and coffee
fields, the country's main sources of income.

"They live simply, but they're not destitute," says Patrick Fagg, a jeweler who
sells amber in the northern resort town of Sosua.

Most miners live near the tunnels in the Cordillera Septentional mountain range
in huts made of tin or palm leaves.

They spend their days about 180 meters underground, where they crouch or lie in
the light of flickering candles, chipping the amber out of hard rock.

Despite long hours and high risks, most amber miners wouldn't consider leaving
the trade into which they were born, says George O. Poinar Jr., a paleobiologist
at the University of California at Berkeley and author of several books on 

About 500 families work in the amber mines of the north-central Cibao Valley,
Martinez says. The miners' age range, he says, is 10 to 60.

Martinez, 42, has worked in the amber business for 30 years. As a teen-ager,
he and his brothers followed his uncle to Santiago's mines to buy small pieces
of amber. It was about the time the Dominican government began to see amber's
potential as a mineral export.

In his tiny shop in a large, run-down market on the outskirts of town, Martinez
shaves and polishes the crude amber brought in daily from his mines. He sells
it to buyers from Japan, Italy and the United States.

Three years ago, he provided American movie producers with a piece of amber
containing an ancient mosquito. It inspired an incident in the 1993 movie
"Jurassic Park."

In the film, scientists use dinosaur blood inside the mosquito to reconstruct
and clone dinosaurs.

Dominican amber sales jumped fivefold in the aftermath of the science-fiction
hit, Martinez says. The movie also spawned a thriving counterfeit amber

Street vendors around the world sell unwitting tourists realistic plastic pieces
that sometimes contain newly dead frogs or lizards.

"There are some spectacular forgeries out there," David Grimaldi, an
entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, tells
National Geographic.

One way to tell the difference: True amber, when rubbed hard, emits a pleasant
pine scent. It also becomes electrically charged.

Although demand for the semiprecious material has fallen in the past year,
scientists still consider Dominican amber unparalleled for its fossils.

"The preservation is unreal," says Francis Hueber, a paleobotanist at the
Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. "We're able to dissect the amber
and expose the actual structures of a (prehistoric) insect's muscles, eyes, jaws
and nervous system."

While miners say amber is less plentiful now than it was a decade ago, few in
the industry believe that the world's supply will be depleted anytime soon.

"Deposits are always being discovered," says Grimaldi. He and a team from the
American Museum recently found several significant 90 million-year-old deposits
near Raritan Bay, N.J.

Amber is removed with high-tech mining and dredging equipment in most places.
In the Dominican Republic, the miners' only tools are hammers, chisels and
calloused hands.

In the tropical heat and humidity of the Caribbean island, "the work is
back-breaking," Poinar says. "There are numerous close calls."

Sometimes they're too close. Last year, three Dominican miners were crushed to
death in a landslide.