Chinese authorities in the northern region of Inner Mongolia are holding seven ethnic Mongolian herders after clashes with a mining company they said polluted their grazing lands, local residents said on Thursday.
The detentions came after around 150 herders from Chagaan-oboo Gachaa in Heshigten Banner (in Chinese, Keshiketeng Qi) to the north of Chifeng city staged a sit-in protest in front of the Inner Mongolia Yindu Mining Co. on Wednesday.
Herders told RFA that the company had been dumping toxic waste onto their grazing lands in since January, causing the death of livestock.
"They were afraid of trouble, so they just called in the riot police from Heshigten and detained eight people," a local herder who declined to be identified said.
He said the dispute had been running since the beginning of the year.
"In January, it seems there was a leak from their waste pipes, and they left it too late to fix it, which meant that pollution got into the river," he said.
"All the livestock nearby ended up dying."
He said an elderly herder was released by police late on Wednesday, but the rest remained behind bars.
"There are still seven of our herders being held by the Heshigten Banner police department," he said.
According to the New York-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center (SMHRIC), Yindu Mining runs one of the few large silver, zinc, and lead mines in northern China.
"The mining company ... occupied a large piece of grazing land of the local Mongolian herders' community," the group said in an e-mailed statement on Thursday.
An official who answered the phone at the Heshigten Banner police department said it was "inconvenient" to speak by phone.
"You should come here yourself," the official said.
Leak under control
And an employee who answered the phone at the Bayanchagaan Som, a subdistrict of Heshigten Banner which administers Chagaan-Oboo Gachaa, said the pollution leak had already been brought under control.
"The locals got a bit of compensation, which has already been paid out," the official said. "There shouldn't be a problem."
"They are kicking up a fuss over nothing, saying they have to give them money."
"Animals die in every village ... because it's spring and they're not doing well and their immunity is down," the official added. "It's hardly fair to go blaming the mining company because a cow or a sheep dies."
But the Chagaan-Oboo herder said their animals rarely died in springtime, and that a single ox would cost an average herding family one fifth of their total annual income.
Earlier this month, authorities near Tongliao city in the east of the region detained more than 40 herders from Maliin-ger Gachaa, Morin-Sum Som after they clashed with local police on April 12 in a bid to prevent a coal transportation company from taking over their grazing lands, SMHRIC said.
"Local Mongolian villagers were beaten up and threatened with imprisonment by the local police reinforced by more than 400 fully armed riot police dispatched from the municipal authorities," the group said in a statement.
It quoted social media posts as saying that police had seized villagers' cell phones and wallets, threatened them with guns, and beat up women.
A Morin-sum Som government official later confirmed the clashes had taken place, it said.
"Are you talking about the incident that took place on Saturday?" the official said in an interview with SMHRIC. "Yes, there were some Mongolian villagers taken away."
But he transferred the call to his supervisor when asked whether the 40 some Mongolians who were arrested are still being held in detention, SMHRIC said.
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.
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.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.