Illegal mining of opal has devastated rice fields and landscapes in a commune in the Central Highlands Province of Dak Nong.

Dak Gan Commune, Dak Mil District, which has borne the brunt of the illegal mining, is pockmarked with large, deep holes spread over dozopaens of ha.

The illegal exploitation in Dac Mil began in 2005 but it has become more intensive and blatant in recent months, especially with the Vinamin Joint Stock Company bringing in 10 power shovels for excavating.

An opal market has opened on Highway 14 just a kilometre away from the Dak Gan People's Committee.

A report by Dac Mil District agencies, which sent an inspection team, said 15 power shovels were being used in Dak Gan, mostly by people from other localities who had bought lands, mainly farming, from locals.

With the miners paying high prices for land, many farmers were ready to chop down coffee, pepper, and cashew trees to sell their land.

Nguyen Xuan Khue, head of Dac Mil district's Natural Resources and Environment Sub-Department, said since opal was a precious stone, only the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment had the authority to issue mining licences.

So far not a single individual or organisation had been licensed to exploit opal in the area.

However, local agencies had been unable to stop them due to lack of personnel, Khue said.

Nguyen Xuan Anh, Khue's colleague, said most of the opal mined illegally was exported to China.

The penalties for mining were too lenient to deter offenders, he said.

For instance, Nguyen Thanh Don of central Nha Trang City was recently caught with six cubic metres of opal and chalcedony but fined a mere 3.5 million VND (170 USD), he added./.