Riot police were dispatched to a city in China's northern region of Inner Mongolia after hundreds of herders gathered in protest over the loss of their grazing lands, a New York-based rights group reported on Wednesday.
More than 300 people from Bayan-uul Sum in the region's Bairin Left Banner, a county-level administrative region, on July 21, gathered outside banner headquarters in Lindong city, the Southern Mongolian Human Rights and Information (SMHRIC) reported on its website.
Holding up banners which read: "We want justice! Give us our legal rights!" the herders demanded an immediate response from the banner authorities.
The herders are accusing government officials of using armed gangs to keep them from accessing their traditional grazing lands, a complaint that has become increasingly common amid ongoing exploitation of the region's grasslands by forestry and mining corporations backed by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Local police and special police were deployed to prevent the herders from getting inside the government building, according to video of the clashes published by SMHRIC.
Physical tussles ensued as herders were pushed back by the special police as they tried to push through the doors of the building in a bid to see the banner governor, SMHRIC said.
"We are herders from Bayan-uul Sum, gathering here today to urge the government to answer our demand," one of the protesters told the information center.
"The government is abusing its power to bully the herders and destroying our land and livelihoods," SMHRIC quoted a text message from the herder as saying.
Herders say the banner government illegally appropriated their grazing lands in the guise of a grasslands conservation project without consulting them.
"We will defend our ancestral land at any cost," another herder says in a video clip sent to SMHRIC.
Traditional way of life under threat
The herders of Bayan-uul Sum have been struggling to maintain their traditional way of life in the area, which until now has been relatively untouched by major development projects.
They began organizing daily protests in May. A protest on June 1 saw them pepper-sprayed and beaten by riot police wielding batons as they marched towards government headquarters.
Nearly 200 people were detained or arrested following the clashes.
The conflict escalated after the banner government sent a notice in February to tell them that dozens of villages would be prevented from using the land to graze their herds.
The villages responded by sending representatives to protest the order to the sum and banner governments, SMHRIC said.
Herders are accusing the banner government of encroaching on their land so as to win more funding from higher levels of government and to meet national conservation targets, it said.
"The banner government is robbing [us of] our land in order to benefit from the so-called national nature conversation project, and is disregarding our legal rights," a third protester said in an audio message sent to SMHRIC.
"We will fight to the end until justice is done," the message said.
Ethnic Mongolians, who make up almost 20 percent of Inner Mongolia's population of 23 million, increasingly complain of widespread environmental destruction and unfair development policies in the region.
Clashes between Chinese state-backed mining or forestry companies and herding communities are common in the region, which borders the independent country of Mongolia.
Ethnic Mongolians who complain about the loss of their grazing lands are frequently targeted for harassment, beatings, and detention by the authorities.
Reported by He Ping for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.