Traditional herding communities in a county-level district in China's northern region of Inner Mongolia have stepped up protests over the loss of their grasslands this week, local sources said.
Ethnic Mongolian herders gathered in protest on Tuesday outside the offices of the Haliut township government in Inner Mongolia's Urad Middle Banner, according to local residents and a U.S.-based rights group.
They held up a banner which read: "Defend herders’ rights, take away land occupied by officials!"
The protest was sparked by "local government officials’ illegal occupation of herders’ grazing lands," the New York-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights and Information Center (SMHRIC) said in a statement on its website.
Local residents are also demanding the immediate return of their grazing lands and adequate compensation, it said.
A local resident told RFA: "Herders from Urad Middle banner went to the government on Feb. 23 to hand in a petition for the return of our grasslands and land."
But he added: "The government officials didn't take any notice of us."
A second protester said that a second group had gathered outside the Urad Middle Banner government offices on Wednesday.
"We went and took photos outside the gates of the government compound," the herder said. "The herders are trying to stand up for their rights; things aren't very good for us right now."
A third herder said the protest had lasted from around 11.00 a.m. to noon local time. "It's for the grasslands," he said. "They still won't give them back to us."
"Around 25 of us herders were there today," the third herder said. "To start with, there were about 30 of us, but then some of them left."
A spokesman for the herders, Burinzayaa, told SMHRIC that local government officials have "illegally appropriated" their grazing lands.
"Hundreds of government officials have illegally occupied our collective land under various pretexts," he said. "In accordance with relevant laws and regulations, these officials must give up the land immediately and unconditionally."
The local government's bureau of animal husbandry has also auctioned off some of the grazing lands for which the herders had signed a collective "responsibility contract," which typically lasts for 30 years.
More than 1,000 ethnic Mongolian households are affected by such illegal land transactions, SMHRIC said.
It quoted another herder, Gerlee, as saying: "We have been protesting for years. We appealed to the regional government and even the central government in Beijing. Our demands are completely ignored."
The herders were intercepted during a petitioning trip to Beijing in November 2013 and brought back from the capital, RFA reported at the time.
They have since been confined to their communities and barred from communications with higher government authorities, SMHRIC said.
In addition to the appropriation of grazing land and illegal land sales, the herders' traditional way of life has also been threatened by environmental destruction caused by Chinese mining companies and People's Liberation Army (PLA) military bases, it said.
The government has yet to address the herders' complaints, nor has it paid out any form of compensation, according to SMHRIC.
Organizers of these protests and petitions have repeatedly been arrested, detained, and locked up by local police.
Last November, at least nine herders were detained for staging a protest during a visit to Urad Middle Banner by regional ruling Chinese Communist Party secretary Wang Jun.
Urad Middle Banner resident Mengke said he was unable to speak to RFA on Wednesday.
"There are a few people here in my home right now, so it's not convenient for me to talk," Mengke said. Asked if the visitors were police, he said: "Uh huh. The police from our commune are here to pay me a visit."
The Inner Mongolia regional government is currently implementing a three-year "upgrade" program, including the demolition of buildings "at risk of collapse," the securing of safe drinking water, and the urbanization of rural communities.
The plan also aims to set higher "hygiene standards," and to deliver electricity, radio, and television to all areas, and to improve local schools.
It aims to speed up the urbanization of traditional ethnic Mongolian herding communities, offering lump sum payouts of around 10,000 yuan (U.S.$1,500) per household.
SMHRIC estimates that at least 160,000 ethnic Mongolians have been forcibly evicted from traditional grazing lands in recent decades, while local activists also blame Chinese companies for damaging the fragile ecosystem in the region, leading local authorities to impose grazing bans to prevent further desertification.
In China, all land is ultimately owned by the state, so herders have little redress when it comes to safeguarding their grazing rights, they say.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.