(Adds quote from Inner Mongolia governor, compensation scheme)
BEIJING, June 1 (Reuters) - China’s vast northern region of Inner Mongolia began a month-long overhaul of its lucrative coal mining industry on Wednesday, state media said, to ease public anger over the death of a herder who was struck by a coal truck.
Inner Mongolia has seen scattered protests over the past week or so by ethnic Mongolians, sparked by the death of the herder, but which have morphed into broader demands for protection of their culture.
The government, ever worried by threats to stability, is now trying to address some of the protesters’ broader concerns about the damage caused by coal mining to traditional grazing lands of the Mongolian people in China.
The official Xinhua news agency, in an English-language report, said the death of the herder had “led to heightened concerns over industry practices in the resource-rich region’s mining sector”.
“The regional coal mine industry bureau ordered local work safety watchdogs to strengthen supervision of the coal mines to ensure safe production practices, protection of the environment, and attention to the welfare of local residents,” it said.
Inner Mongolia’s governor, the ethnic Mongolian Bagatur, said the government would “leave no stone unturned” in their probe into mines which damage the environment or seriously affect residents.
“The issue cannot be ignored,” Xinhua quoted Bagatur as saying. “We will conduct a thorough probe, and no individual or enterprise shall be spared if violations are found.”
The government is also considering setting up a compensat ion scheme for residents and herders who suffer from “ excessive noise and dust ” created by mining and the transport of coal, the report added, without giving details.
Ethnic Mongolians, who make up less than 20 percent of the roughly 24 million population of Inner Mongolia, have complained that their traditional grazing lands have been ruined by mining and desertification, and that the government has tried to force them to settle in permanent houses.
Inner Mongolia, which covers more than a tenth of China’s land mass, is supposed to offer a high degree of self-rule, but Mongolians say the Han Chinese majority run the show and have been the main beneficiaries of economic development.
China’s Mongolians rarely take to the streets, unlike Tibetans or Xinjiang’s Uighurs, making the latest protests highly unusual.
Rights groups say word of the protests, and of the death of the herder, spread fast online in Inner Mongolia.
Xinhua said that four people had been charged with the death of the herder, a man named Mergen, who like many of China’s Mongolians goes by only one name.
“Mergen and more than 20 others tried to block coal trucks, which local residents said had impacted their lives, late at night on May 10,” Xinhua added.
“Mergen attempted to block the path of a coal truck and quarreled with the drivers. According to police, the truck dragged Mergen for 145 meters, leading (to) Mergen’s death,” the report said.
Xinhua said the trial would be public, but did not say when it would happen.
Inner Mongolia is China’s biggest coal producing region and the protests come as severe power shortages loom ahead of the summer peak energy season.
But infrastructure is poor and the race by truck drivers, drawn by high margins, to transport coal to the country’s east has been accompanied by a spate of accidents. (Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)