Ethnic Mongolian herders from two border areas in China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region say they have been forced to move from traditional grazing lands as the region is taken over by China's People's Liberation Army (PLA).
Herding communities in Dorbod Banner (in Chinese, Siziwang Qi) in Ulanqab (Wulanchabu) prefecture and Sonid Right Banner (Sunite Youqi), which border Mongolia, say they have been moved off vast tracts of grassland by the military to make way for exercises.
"They have been forced off their land by the army to make way for a military exercise area," an ethnic Mongolian resident of Dorbod, who gave a single name, Uilji, told RFA.
"They have petitioned higher levels of government, but to no avail," he said. "The PLA is carrying out military exercises with Russia now, and the herders have been chased out."
Meanwhile, Dabushilat, a resident of Sonid Right Banner in neighboring Xilingol (Xilinguole) prefecture, said the army had begun claiming land across the two banners in 2011, taking over more than 800,000 mu (hectares) in Dorbod Banner—the administrative equivalent of a county—and displacing 470 households.
He said the herders had signed a lease for the land that runs from 1998-2027, but that authorities had paid it no attention.
"They forced the herders off the grasslands in Sonid Right Banner on Aug. 7," Dabushilat said. "So they sat in on Highway 208 with protest banners, but no one paid any attention to their protest."
"There wasn't anything we could do about it, either."
He said the cancellation of the grasslands lease contract had come with a subsistence payment of 500 yuan (U.S.$81.37) a month, but that health care and social security were only offered to herders who moved to the main town of the banner.
"On April 21, more than 130 people from both banners went to the national complaints office in Beijing and the Central Military Commission to complain," Dabushilat said.
"Officials from the banner government and local police tried to stop us from petitioning," he said.
In total, 470 households and 1,760 people in Dorbod had been forced from their ancestral grasslands by the land grab, he said.
"We lost 1,596,000 mu in the two banners, in Sonid Right Banner and Dorbod Banner," Dabushilat said. "We signed a 30-year contract, but we only had the land from 1998 to 2011, hardly any time at all."
"Then they suddenly issued the order."
A second local resident, Batuskh, said families are now trying to eke out a living from farming nearby.
"They took our grasslands away," Batuskh said. "We are relying on a flock of sheep for our living."
"We used to have more than 8,000 mu of land, but they took 6,000 mu away from us, and all we have left is 2,000 mu," he said.
Repeated calls to government offices in both banners rang unanswered during office hours on Wednesday.
Sonid Right Banner resident Dayun said the government had paid out 2,400 yuan (U.S.$390.58) per mu in compensation to herders, but had later told herders who tried to complain that the case involved "state secrets" and "military secrets," and refused to discuss it further.
"Our household has been left with just 2,000 mu of grassland, and they paid out 100,000 yuan (U.S.$16,274) per person, as well as 200 yuan (U.S.$32.55) subsistence payment per mu," Dayun said.
"But they made us move, and we have no jobs," he said. "I don't think there was any basis for this in law."
"Here, 1,147 people and 242 households were affected," Dayun said. "We held that land under government contract, a grasslands responsibility contract that was good for 30 years."
"There was still another 17 years to run on it."
He said the authorities had moved to muzzle anyone who spoke out.
"They put some people under house arrest, and some were held for a day or two at the police station," Dayun said.
Dayun said he had been to Beijing and to the PLA regional command center to complain, but had yet to receive any response.
"They haven't responded," he said. "The Communist Party is the law, and if they say it's for military use, then who are we to argue?"
Rights activists say grasslands on which the herding communities depend for a living are constantly being taken over, forcing them to take action to stand up for their rights.
Ethnic Mongolians, who make up almost 20 percent of Inner Mongolia's population of 23 million, complain of environmental destruction and unfair development policies in the region.
Clashes between Chinese companies and ethnic Mongolian herders protesting the exploitation of their grasslands are increasingly common in the region, which borders the independent country of Mongolia.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.