China's government and official media have warned of large-scale ecological destruction of grasslands, including those in the troubled northern region of Inner Mongolia—a factor some say was behind recent protests in the region.
"The state of the grasslands should be monitored on an annual basis and a comprehensive survey of grassland resources should be conducted every five years," official media cited a recent directive from China's cabinet, the State Council, as saying.
"Practices of illegal use and exploitation of grassland resources should be investigated and punished in accordance with the law," it said.
Experts say that deep-seated cultural ties to the grasslands and traditional nomadic ways of life lay behind a wave of protests that swept across Inner Mongolia in May.
Ethnic Mongolians, who make up almost 20 percent of Inner Mongolia's 23 million population, complain of destruction and unfair development policies in the region, which is China's largest producer of coal. The overwhelming majority of the residents are Han Chinese.
Ninety percent of China's 400 million hectares (988 million acres) of grassland now show some degree of environmental degradation, according to vice minister of agriculture Gao Hongbin.
Gao was recently quoted in official media as saying that the preservation of China's grassland is an "extremely pressing task."
Beijing recently rolled out a slew of tax breaks and funding for enterprises in rural areas that implement environmentally friendly programs and technological innovations in the field.
"The government will also provide subsidies for cattle herders in northern and western China, as these herders will be prohibited from allowing their cattle to graze on severely damaged grasslands," the official China Daily newspaper reported.
But overseas rights campaigners said that Chinese authorities are still a long way from protecting the rights of indigenous nomadic people, who have roamed China's grasslands for centuries.
"They are still not listening to the indigenous peoples who have true knowledge and experience of taking care of grassland, but are determined to continue to bar the herders from returning to their grasslands," said Enhebatu Togochog, director of the U.S.-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center (SMHRIC).
He said Chinese authorities continue to exploit the grassland in spite of slogans like "grassland protection" and "economic growth."
"Not only will these policies bring disastrous ecological consequences to the grassland, but also they will create deeper social and political problems [for] China," he said by e-mail.
"The May protest by the Mongolian herders and students is an example."
While the protests were sparked by the death of a herdsman from the Shiliin-Gol (in Chinese, Xilin Meng) area, many commentators believe they reflect a deep and widespread anger over continuing exploitation of the region's grasslands, the heartland of Mongol culture.
Environmentalists point to large-scale environmental destruction in Inner Mongolian regions where mining is taking place, as well as to more subtle ecological pressures in other areas.
Open-cast, or strip, mining is one of the most environmentally destructive forms of mining, destroying the surface ecosystem over a wide area and releasing pollutants into the air.
Last week, in one of the latest examples of unrest in the region, hundreds of local residents from the Morin Dawa Daur Autonomous Banner near Hulun Buir city have been protesting against local officials for pressuring them into signing over 1,385 mu (228 acres) of farmland for industrial development.
They say the government promised them 2,200 yuan (U.S. $345) per mu, but the compensation never materialized.
In May, Chinese authorities poured armed police and security forces into Inner Mongolia to contain protests sparked by the death of a herdsman, Murgen, who was run over during clashes with mine company trucks.
The mine worker who was convicted of the killing was executed last week, according to a report by the official Xinhua news agency.
Thousands of students were locked in campuses at major schools, colleges, and universities in the regional capital, Hohhot.
The Hohhot clampdown followed demonstrations by hundreds of ethnic minority Mongolians who called for better rights protection for Mongolians and the release of detainees.
The U.S.-based SMHRIC said an estimated 40 people were detained since major protests erupted in Shiliingol League in May.
Official media have responded by saying SMHRIC has few connections to the region.
Reported by Luisetta Mudie and by Pan Jiaqing for RFA's Cantonese service.