Mongolian herders from China's Inner Mongolia region took to the streets of their local town last week in protest at the loss of their grazing lands to Chinese companies, a U.S.-based rights group said.
The herders, from Inner Mongolia's western Ejinee Banner, known as Alashan Meng in Chinese, were protesting the "illegal leasing" of land by local government officials to large corporations, the Southern Mongolia Human Rights Information Center (SMHRIC) said in an emailed statement sent late on Monday.
"Herders held a sign reading '[We] strongly demand the return of our sacred land'," the group said.
Local herders Bagnaa, Gungaa and Bodolt led dozens of ethnic Mongolian nomads, who rely on grazing herds to make a living, in the protest march towards the Ejinee Banner government last Monday, SHMRIC said.
"When the protestors reached a bridge near the Banner capital, about a dozen government officials and security personnel stopped them and tried to take down the long banner the herders were holding," the group said.
"Several herders were beaten up."
An official who answered the phone at the banner government offices on Tuesday denied the protest had taken place.
"This didn't happen: it couldn't happen," the official said, before adding: "Which photos did you see? Can you give me the URL? It is accessible from within China?"
Meanwhile, an officer who answered the phone at the banner police station appeared to confirm that a protest had taken place.
"I think the police department would have [dealt with this]," he said, but declined to comment further. "I don't really know about this," he added.
According to reports and pictures posted to Mongolian social media sites, the Ejinee herders were also angered by the staging of a recent international beauty pageant on their lands, which featured sand sculptures caricaturing the local Torgud tribe, to which they belong.
"An international beauty contest was held on the grazing land of the local herder Bagnaa without his consent," SMHRIC said. "In the background were several huge demon-like sand sculptures meant to represent the ancient Torgud tribal leaders."
The group said it had managed to confirm the protest independently with police and herders, but that details over the current fate of the protesters were sketchy.
The Chinese government is currently in the process of forcing three ethnic minority groups to abandon the last traces of their nomadic lifestyles over the next three years, according to a previous report by the SMHRIC.
The group has cited recent government announcements as "a major and seemingly final step toward eliminating the remaining population of nomad herders and eradicating the thousands of years-old nomadic way of life in China."
SMHRIC, which campaigns for the rights of ethnic Mongols in China's Inner Mongolia region, said the resettlement policies would affect nomadic herders in the troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and Tibet. China's 12th Five-Year Plan aims to resettle the remaining nomad population of 1.157 million people by 2015.
However, under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), to which Beijing is a signatory, "indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories."
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 2011.
Chinese authorities poured armed police and security forces into Inner Mongolia to contain protests sparked by the death of a herdsman from the Shiliin-Gol (in Chinese, Xilin Meng) region who was run over during clashes with mine company trucks.
Thousands of students were locked in campuses at major schools, colleges, and universities in the regional capital, Hohhot, following demonstrations by hundreds of ethnic minority Mongolians across the region.
Mongolian commentators said the protests 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.
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.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.