Mongol aid only scratches surface

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 June, 2011, 12:00am


The vision of Inner Mongolia as a place of endless grasslands sparsely populated by horse-riding herdsmen watching over their cattle and sheep is as outdated as it is romanticised. For the past decade, mining companies have been moving in en masse to extract the rich deposits of coal, iron ore, copper and rare earths. To fight spreading desertification, about one million indigenous Mongols have been relocated from pastures to urban areas to prevent the overgrazing that is in part responsible for the spring sandstorms that annually choke northern China. It is not surprising that the death of a herder, run over by a coal truck he was trying to block, has sparked outrage among the ethnic population.

Authorities should have seen the protests coming, but instead they were blinded by the wealth being generated. Inner Mongolia has become the country's biggest coal producer and rare earths exporter and consequently an integral part of the nation's economic growth engine. Greedy mining operators and corrupt officials have had little regard for the grasslands and environment. Mongols and their culture have been sidelined, marginalised or ignored - despite their heritage, rights and the fact they comprise 17 or so per cent of the population.

Mongols stress that their grievances are not the same as those of groups in the country's ethnic hot spots, Tibet and Xinjiang. Nonetheless, the central government responded in the same manner when the protests started after the killing of the herder in the Xilingol area on May 10. Armed police fanned out across cities and towns to quell unrest and internet connections were shut down. Warnings were sent to overseas groups 'who are stirring up trouble'.

Blaming foreigners for unrest has long been used as an excuse by Beijing to clamp down on perceived dissent. But the plight of Mongols is not about foreign interference, separatism, democratic freedoms or fighting the Han majority: it is about identity, fairness, loss of traditions and survival. Many have not been sharing in Inner Mongolia's development boom. They have lost their grassland, livelihoods, homes and means of feeding themselves.

Beijing dealt with unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang by pouring in billions of yuan in development aid. It is not so simple in Inner Mongolia, though. Officials have promised to compensate herdsmen and better regulate the mining companies. Preventing environmental degradation and pollution will be a focus of efforts.

That is a good start and high time, but only scratches the surface. Mongols also deserve better education, health care and housing. And there is the even more important matter of preserving and protecting traditional ways of life. Giving ancestral land back to herdsmen, or fairly compensating them for their loss, has to be a priority.