Xinjiang Herdsman’s Fight for His Meteorite
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2017-03-22 11:58:27

Zhuman Ramazan didn’t have to venture far afield to wish upon a shooting star.

More than 30 years ago, the herdsman of Kazak ethnicity discovered an immense meteorite in his pasture in Altay, northwestern China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, near China’s borders with Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Russia.

Though he never saw it streak through the night sky, to 62-year-old Zhuman, the meteorite is a miracle and a gift from God. He has made it his mission to protect the meteorite, which has since become known as “The Tear of Allah.” For 25 years, Zhuman was the proud caretaker of the enormous rock — but in 2011, the Altay municipal government seized the meteorite.

Now, Zhuman is battling the municipal government for ownership of the meteorite. On Monday, the case was finally heard by the Altay City People’s Court after twice being dismissed by courts since he filed his first lawsuit on the matter in 2015. A resolution could be far, far away, however, as Chinese law reveals a black hole when it comes to the ownership of debris from outer space.

According to court documents seen by Sixth Tone, Zhuman wrote that he and his brother discovered the “divine stone” in the pasture he had leased — agricultural land in China is allocated on a tenure basis, rather than privately owned — in July 1986. They reported the meteorite’s existence to local authorities, and both their local village committee and the Hongdun Town government agreed that Zhuman should safeguard the stone.

For a quarter-century, the herdsman kept his promise. But in 2011, civil servants from the Altay municipal government came to the pasture with heavy machinery, intending to remove the meteorite. Three local herdsmen testified that the conflict lasted for several days. Strong wind and sudden snow forced Zhuman to leave, and the stone was finally taken away.

“Without our permission, the government took the stone to Altay’s city center while we were absent from the scene,” Zhuman stated in his lawsuit. “We have asked them several times to return the divine stone, but they didn’t give a clear response.”

The elder son of Zhuman Ramazan poses with the meteorite his family discovered. Courtesy of Zhuman Ramazan

The elder son of Zhuman Ramazan poses with the meteorite his family discovered. Courtesy of Zhuman Ramazan

The 17.8-ton stone has been identified as an iron meteorite. High-quality meteorites can fetch around $300 per kilogram, suggesting that “The Tear of Allah” could be worth more than $5.3 million. A century ago, the world’s third-largest iron meteorite, “Silver Camel,” was also found in Altay. Scientists have verified that the two meteorites originated from the same meteoroid that split apart upon entering the Earth’s atmosphere. Further study of the meteorite that Zhuman discovered could advance scientific research.

“We agree that scientific research can utilize the meteorite’s value to the full,” Zhuman’s lawyer, Sun Yi, told Sixth Tone on Tuesday. “But the government can’t disregard the discoverers.”

The law is ambiguous on the matter. China’s civil law doesn’t follow the principle of first possession that, in some countries, entitles individuals to claim ownership over minerals they discover.

According to China’s constitution and civil laws on property, natural resources such as “minerals, waters, forests, mountains, grasslands, wastelands, marshlands, etc.” belong to the country. The Altay municipal government argued in court on Monday that because a meteorite is a type of natural resource, it should be considered the property of the country. 

The legal dispute essentially rests on the interpretation of “etc.” in the law. To Zhuman and Sun, a meteorite cannot be classed as a natural resource. They believe it belongs to Zhuman because it was found on the land he had leased.

“Zhuman has contracted the pasture from 1984 to 2033. By taking the stone away, the government has infringed upon his land management rights,” Sun argued.

Zhuman is not the only person to contest the ownership of the meteorite. Guangzhou-based newspaper Southern Weekly reported that in 2013, two Kazak guides took legal action against the local government, saying that they were the first to report the meteorite’s exact location to the Beijing Planetarium. The guides complained that they each received only 5,000 yuan ($726) and a certificate of honor.

The municipal government has not supported any individual’s claim of discovery, but a village committee document from 2008 affirms Zhuman’s role as the discoverer and caretaker of the rock.

Sun warned that negative outcomes could result from the government’s confiscation of meteorites without adequate compensation or acknowledgement of those who discovered or preserved them: In the future, such minerals might be sold to foreign countries. 

“Currently, there’s a dilemma where if you accept a reward, you surrender ownership rights to the meteorite,” Sun said. He stressed that Zhuman wants to see the meteorite returned, rather than receive monetary compensation. “But we won’t rule out the possibility of compromise,” he said, adding that the hearing could continue for five months.

Other parts of China have also seen disagreements over unusual natural resources. In southwestern China’s Sichuan province, seven pieces of ebony, valued at around 12 million yuan, were discovered buried in land contracted to a family surnamed Wu. The government claimed ownership and proposed a reward of 70,000 yuan, but the Wu family sued, requesting either ownership rights or at least 2 million yuan. According to the Party newspaper People’s Daily, after three years in and out of court, the family eventually reached a compensation agreement with the government.

Contributions: Wang Le; editor: Qian Jinghua.

(Header image: Archaeologists inspect a meteorite discovered in Altay, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Aug. 17, 2011. IC)