HOHHOT - A north China court sentenced a forklift driver to death on Tuesday for killing an ethnic herder after a dispute over pollution coming from a local mine, the second of two coal mine-related murders to stir controversy over the last month in the resource-rich Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.
Local authorities are now looking at environmental problems that may have resulted from the exploitation of the region's coal reserves, an issue that many believe lies beneath the recent unrest, officials and experts said.
A month-long overhaul has been launched to clean up or close poorly-run coal mines in the region. Officials say the regional government has also drafted a compensation plan that will force mining companies to pay extra fees for setting up mine's in undeveloped areas.
These fees will be used to subsidize local residents who feel that they have been negatively impacted by the mines.
Industry observers say the creation of the compensation plan is a signal that the government will no longer tolerate the improper exploitation of its natural resources by mining companies.
Zhang Guoliang, deputy secretary-general of the Inner Mongolia regional government, said the government is also drafting plans that will require mining companies to share profits with local residents.
"Mining firms should cooperate with farmers and herders, who have lost their traditional ways of livelihood as a result of exploitation," Zhang said.
Mining sets off deadly protest
Mergen, a Mongolian herder whose death set off a round of protests in the area, was killed on May 10 while trying to block coal trucks near his village in West Ujimqin Banner. He was blocking the trucks as a form of protest against the mine.
Yan Wenlong, the victim in the second murder case, was run over by a forklift at a coal mine in Abag Banner after a clash between local residents and coal miners over pollution cause by the mine.
Following their deaths, thousands of people took to the streets in the Inner Mongolian city of Xilinhot, demanding justice for the murder victims and better protection of the region's grasslands and the welfare of herders, who are mostly ethnic Mongolians.
Pictures of excavators and coal-hauling trucks driving over and destroying the grasslands have been circulated on Weibo, a popular microblogging site. The pictures have drawn anger and support from Internet users across the country who are concerned about the vulnerable ecology of Inner Mongolia's grasslands.
Uyunbatu, a village head in Mergin's home of West Ujimqin Banner, said dust and sand are omnipresent on the coal truck paths that thread through local herders' residential areas.
"Because of the dust, we seldom open windows, nor do we dry our laundry outdoors," said Uyunbatu.
He said the noise at night is even more irritating.
"We believe the grasslands are as important as life itself," another herder said. "It is sad to see them being damaged by mining operations."
The herder said it might take more than ten years for grass to grow on pastures that have been damaged by coal trucks.
Government statistics show that desertification claimed about 52 percent of the total land area of Inner Mongolia by the end of 2009.
Over the past decade, about 12 million mu (804,000 hectares) of grasslands in the region have been lost to desertification annually.
The area's mines have seriously damaged the grasslands as well, said Altanhobotxar, a professor from the University of Inner Mongolia.
Local herders are most irritated by seeing mining-related exploitation occurring on grasslands that were previously sealed off by the government to prevent overgrazing, the professor said.
Local residents have complained about the excessive draining of underground water by coal mines, which has exacerbated the desertification problem.
Bagatur, chairman of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region government,acknowledged in an article published in the most recent issue of the Communist Party's "Seeking Truth" magazine that resource exploitation, along with industrialization and urbanization, have brought new environmental challenges to Inner Mongolia's agricultural society.
"There is an urgent need to prevent the environment from deteriorating any further," Bagatur said.
China's top coal producer
Inner Mongolia, bordering Mongolia to the north and covering 12 percent of China's total land area, also holds the country's largest coal reserves, or 741.4 billion metric tons.
The region's coal output reached 787 million metric tons last year, replacing Shanxi Province as the country's top coal producer. Inner Mongolia's coal output is expected to hit 850 million metric tons this year, industry figures show.
According to the National Energy Administration's 12th five-year plan for the coal mining industry, Inner Mongolia will take the lead in opening new mines, especially large open-air mines, from 2011 to 2015.
The mining industry plan, which is still under deliberation, states that Inner Mongolia should raise its annual coal output by 130 million metric tons, or about 26 percent of the country's total increased capacity, by 2015.
However, environmentalists say that the region serves as a natural barrier to prevent sandstorms and desertification from spreading across northern China. Local residents fear that the region will become a desert after the implementation of the new mining industry plan.
Currently, about 1.7 million square kilometers of territory in western China, or 17.7 percent of the country's total land area, is covered by deserts.
Experts say the desertification is caused by the overuse of limited water resources.
Regional coal mining authorities ordered a month-long overhaul in late May for the area's coal mines. The overhaul is intended to curb environmental damage, limit the impact of the mines on local residents and eliminate violations of safety rules. " MINES WILL PAY IN THE END
In addition to the industry overhaul, the government is also considering establishing a compensation plan to force mining companies to pay for their use of pastures.
Under the compensation plan, the companies will be forced to compensate local residents for a variety of problems caused by the mines, including water loss and damage to grasslands. The plan will allow these companies to compensate the residents by providing jobs or "substantial" subsidies, the regional government's deputy secretary-general Zhang said.
He said the details of the plan will be made public after the plan is finalized.
Zhang said the local government might also raise pollution control standards regarding the construction of new mines.
Yu Guangjun, director of the economic research bureau of the Academy of Social Sciences of Inner Mongolia, said the current mechanism used to evaluate the mines needs to be improved in order to truly gauge the impact of the mines on underground water supplies.
Yu said that coal-hauling routes should also be changed to keep the coal trucks away from herders' settlements.
The cost of adjusting the mining industry's policies is not yet clear, but officials say the welfare of local residents is set to be boosted.
Bagatur said there are 1.5 million people living under the poverty line in Inner Mongolia. About 74 percent of these people live in ethnic minority areas.
The regional government has vowed to double the incomes of herders in five years from the current annual average of 5,530 yuan (851 U.S. dollars).
"For Inner Mongolia, the welfare issue is not just an economic or social issue. It is a political issue that concerns ethnic unity and stability," Bagatur said.
State pledges to support Inner Mongolia
The State Council, or China's cabinet, held a high-profile meeting on June 15 to discuss policies that will boost the overall development of Inner Mongolia, pledging to lift living standards for local residents and maintain social stability.
The meeting, presided over by Premier Wen Jiabao, said the central government has pledged to raise incomes for urban and rural residents in Inner Mongolia up to the national average by 2020.
The region's comprehensive economic power should be enhanced and living conditions for farmers and herders should be markedly improved, the cabinet said, ordering government departments and agencies to work out stronger supporting polices to back the region in terms of industrial development, taxation, financing and investment. [ The cabinet also said that Inner Mongolia's total forest coverage should increase to 21.5 percent by 2015, and that its grassland coverage should increase to 43 percent.