Ethnic Mongolian herders in China's northern region of Inner Mongolia on Friday faced off with police as they blockaded a reservoir construction project in protest at low levels of compensation for the loss of their traditional grazing lands.
Nearly 100 residents of Lubei township near the planned Maodu Reservoir in Inner Mongolia's Zaruud Middle Banner staged a sit-in, preventing trucks from reaching the construction site on Tuesday, herders told RFA.
Construction of the reservoir is already under way, but the authorities are locked in a compensation dispute with local herding communities, with no agreement in sight, they said.
"There were about 70 or 80 of us who went [today]," a herder who asked to remain anonymous said. "The police were there, but they didn't do anything to us."
He said the herders were complaining that compensation offered for the loss of their grasslands is too low.
"Agricultural land is priced at 296,000 yuan per mu [U.S. $44,200 per 0.06 hectare], while grazing land is priced at 4,200 yuan [U.S. $627] per mu, while you get a bit more than 10,000 yuan [U.S. $1,493] per mu for forestry land," the herder said.
He said around 610 people involved in the dispute, from more than 160 households in the affected area.
"The building of the Maodu reservoir is affecting the people of five villages," the herder said.
‘They won’t compensate us’
A second protester said the blockading protesters had prevented one truck carrying earth from going to the site.
"They are carrying earth, red clay, which belongs to local people," the protester said. "We managed to stop several trucks yesterday."
"It is being used to build the dam that will form the reservoir, but we wouldn't let the trucks through, because they won't compensate us," he said.
"Local people stopped five trucks yesterday," he said, adding that a handful of police officers were at the scene.
Zaruud banner authorities announced plans in November 2013 for the 478 million yuan (U.S. $71.4 million) Maodu reservoir, which is scheduled for completion later this year, in a bid to store water and combat creeping desertification.
With a planned capacity of more than 96 million cubic meters, the reservoir is a flagship local infrastructure project, according to official tender notices posted online.
But a local herder said the government had given little thought to what would happen to local people displaced by the project.
"The government has taken over this land to build a reservoir, but they have given us very little in compensation," the herder said.
"This is a permanent takeover of the land; so what are we to live on for the rest of our lives?" he said. "The land will be lost to us forever."
He said the government had declined to respond to attempts to negotiate a higher rate of compensation.
"They won't do anything about it," he said.
The herder also said residents will initially be moved to emergency housing costing more than 10,000 yuan per unit.
Repeated calls to the Zaruud banner government offices rang unanswered during office hours on Tuesday.
Two categories of protests
Ethnic Mongolian rights campaigners say protests in Inner Mongolia fall broadly into two categories: anti-pollution protests and protests over encroachment on the region's diminishing grasslands.
Both issues strike at the heart of traditional Mongolian nomadic lifestyles, they say.
Many of China's ethnic Mongolian herders hold their grazing lands under "household responsibility" contracts, which typically last up to 30 years.
But authorities routinely ignore the herders' land rights when using land for road-building, mining, or forestry projects, rights activists say.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.