Echoing Steppe
home-english- Copy from  SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST  THURSDAY, OCTOBER 14, 2010    National  A 7        

Lama helps herdsmen with earthly knowledge

Stephen Chen in Xilinhot, Inner Mongolia  

    Head lama Siendao raises a bowl of milk tea to greet a small group of esteemed guests when his smart phone buzzes on the table. He puts down the bowl immediately and picks up the phone. It is the fifth incoming call since the morning tea session began. He presses the answer button with an apologetic smile.

    This and all the other calls have con from deeply confused and worried Inner Mongolian(ɹ)herdsmen who had been approached by mining company representatives and government officials to give up their mineral-rich pasture for minimal prices. They wanted his opinion.

    The herdsmen, of West Ujumchin Banner, trust Siendao because they believe in his combination of spiritual and physical power. Wrapped beneath his customary crimson robe is the body of a wrestler, whose strength isn't evident until he shakes hands. His understanding and interpretation of Tibetan Buddhism classics have no rival in the region. But what impresses the herdsmen most is an ability beyond the physical and spiritual realm of most aboriginal Mongolians: he knows Chinese law. Siendao has systematically studied the laws of land ownership, grassland management and environmental protection for the past decade. With help from NGOs such as Echoing Steppe, a Beijing-based NGO dedicated to protecting the grassland, he has forged the law into an effective weapon for herdsmen to use in the fight against the rampant exploitation of natural resources devastating their traditional lands. Wherever he travels, desperate herdsmen revere Siendao, who is in his early 30s, as their spiritual leader.

    Siendao's first stunning finding, as he went through the mainland's constitution, was that despite the lack of private land rights, there were still two kinds of .and ownership- by the state and by a collective. The government owns only a very small proportion of the total land mass, in such forms as nature reserves, rivers, military compounds and urban areas. Nearly all the rest - including forests, farmland and grassland - belongs to rural or pastoral communities. According to the Land Law, the grasslands of Inner Mongolia should be, and mostly had been, divided and given to gachas, small self-governing pastoral communities consisting of no more than 200 families, It was just that the Mongolian gacha chiefs, themselves herdsmen, had never been told, and were therefore entirely unaware that they owned the land.

    So when Siendao received word that a mining company was trying to seize a gacha's land in 2003, he went to check out the negotiations. As he expected, a government official accompanying a mining company representative warned the herdsmen that all land belonged to the government, and if the mining company wanted to, it could take over the pasture without compensation.

    Furious, Siendao threw the constitution in the official's face. "What you just said is enough to put you in jail for up to 10 years," he said, Shocked and humiliated, the official and mining company employee left hastily and never returned.

    The initial success encouraged Siendao to compose a letter to all gacha chiefs in Inner Mongolia, urging them to protect their traditional pastures using their legal rights. Almost all chiefs replied that they would follow his instructions.

    The letter deeply troubled the government officials in the region, some of whom tried to bribe him.

    Not long after the attempted bribe, Siendao was arrested by police for compiling, printing and distributing illegal publications. The unlawful publications seized by police were pamphlets of Chinese laws translated by Echoing Steppe into the Mongolian language.

    Bit Siendao was soon released, not only because he was fiercely supported by Mongolian herdsmen, but also because the young lama was a representative of the banner's People's Congress. On the mainland, every People's Congress representative is nominated by the government. Siendao was elected because he was only about 20 when nominated, and the government thought a young lama would he easier to control than an older one.

    "They must have regretted the decision immediately," Siendao said.

    Even in his youth, Siendao was renowned in the neighborhood for his faith. He demonstrated a thorough understanding of some of the most difficult Tibetan Buddhist literature and won admiration and trust from both senior lands and worshippers. As soon as he was elected, he showed political talent, as well, by using the limited political power of a legislator to protect the herdsmen's interests.

    Whenever senior central government officials came to the banner, he would always request a meeting with then. Banner officials disliked it because Siendao would present evidence about local government violations of the constitution and mining and heavy industry laws, but thee officials could not refuse the request because it was his right a legislator.

    The banner government once approached him with a proposal to build a temple with central government funding, but he turned it down, quickly raising enough funds from herdsmen to build one himself.

    The temple gave him a base from which to unite the other scattered gachas in the fight against exploitation and pollution.

    Bayiza, a herdsman in West Ujumchin Banner, says herders everywhere welcome Siendao as a hero.

    "People listen to every word he says and follow everything he does," Bayiza said. "Inner Mongolia really needs an intelligent, knowledgeable and powerful spiritual leader like him. He's afraid of nothing."

    Asked whether he was afraid the banner government would eventually prosecute him, Siendao said feat was useless.

    "Inner Mongolia's grassland is suffering from the worst environmental rampage in history. Feat won't save us," he said. "The invaders charge like wolves when we're afraid but scatter like rats then we're angry. It's time to fight back."