Chinese authorities in the northern region of Inner Mongolia are holding five ethnic Mongolian herders after they took part in a blockade of mining operations on their former grasslands, herders told RFA.
Police from Bayanhuaa township in Inner Mongolia's Right Uzumchin Banner (a county-level administrative district) detained Ganbaatar, Otgonbaatar, Munkhbaatar, Erdenbaatar, Tuvshin and Amarmend on Saturday.
While Erdenbaatar has since been released, the remaining five detained herders are being held under a 10-day administrative sentence for "disrupting public order," local police officers told their families.
"They let him out and he is serving his sentence [at home]," Erdenbaatar's wife told RFA. "There'll definitely be a fine as well, but I don't know how much yet."
The detentions follow a sit-in involving more than 100 herders at the Bayanhuaa Industrial Zone, who blockaded several coal and copper-zinc mines in protest at the loss of their traditional grazing lands and environmental pollution.
"The West Uzumchin Banner authorities detained six people on charges of disrupting public order," said a local resident who asked to remain anonymous, but who supplied photographs to RFA. "There are some polluting industries in the vicinity of Bayanhuaa, which has caused very strong anger among local herding communities."
"The herders have been to complain about it several times to the banner government, but they have never done anything about it, and now the government is sending in the police to detain the herders who made the complaints," the ethnic Mongolian resident said.
Local residents said their land has been polluted by mining waste, affecting their traditional way of life.
"We can't graze our sheep there any more because there is waste effluent in the grasslands, and the sheep get extra-long teeth if they drink the water, and it's harmful to human health as well," one herder told RFA.
A second herder said local communities had suffered "very serious" losses from the pollution.
"The herders have tried to make complaints using every kind of channel, but to no avail," the herder said.
Ethnic Mongolian herder Wu Yanfang said some of the herders also went to demand the release of the detainees at the Bayanhuaa police station.
"Around 60 people went [to complain], and some more went again on Sunday, to demand the release of the detainees," she said.
Toxic mine waste
The New York-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights and Information Center (SMHRIC) said in a statement on its website that the herders from Bayanhuaa's Sain-Undur district had staged the blockade to call for an immediate halt to production at the industrial zone.
It said local water, soil and air is now heavily polluted with untreated toxic mining waste dumped on traditional grazing lands.
According to the banner police department, the herders were detained for blocking the entrance to the Bayanhuaa No.1 Coal Field, the No.2 Coal Crushing Station and a logistics center belonging to a copper-zinc mine for more than two days, "causing a substantial loss to the corporations concerned," SMHRIC quoted a police statement as saying.
The authorities met with local residents on March 17, but herders said they don't hold out much hope that official promises to look into the matter will result in any changes.
"Promises, responses and even the written warning to those mines are just an empty talk," SMHRIC quoted one local resident as saying.
"Those mines are still in production and polluting our grazing land," he said. "All these empty promises are nothing but a trick for fooling us herders and backing those mines and factories to continue to extract our natural resources and destroy our land."
Angry residents told SMHRIC they plan to hold further protests on Monday to call for the herders' release.
Ethnic Mongolian rights activist Xinna said many more of the Bayanhuaa herders had been called in for questioning by police over the protests, which she said had left local people with no livelihood.
"The situation is very tense there right now, because this is the same village where Murgen was run over and killed by a mining company truck," Xinna said.
"The chief of police, who is surnamed Wang, from the Shilingol League [which administers West Uzumchin Banner] has gone down there to suppress these protests."
In 2011, local herder Murgen was run over by a worker driving a coal-hauling truck while protesting the destruction of grazing lands by a mining company, sparking weeks of protests across the region by herders and students.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wong Siu-san and Wong Lok-to for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.