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Tibet Outside the TAR: Barkham

By Steven D. Marshall and Susette Ternent Cooke


Brief Description and Impressions

Barkham, a part of what Tibetans consider Amdo but located very near the northeastern most reaches of Kham lies 390 kilometers northwest of Chengdu, a two-day journey along a good tarred road. Capital of Ngawa Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, Barkham must be regarded by the Chinese as an inspiring success story in nationalities autonomous area development. With a surface area of 6,346 square kilometers, Barkham County is an area rich in pasture land, forest and arable alpine valleys, with a cool temperate climate. To exploit these resources, the Chinese Government has clearly invested much expenditure, linking Barkham with the principal Sichuan areas and constructing a large new town where the Chinese can feel at home and the Tibetans can be drawn into the Chinese cultural-economic sphere.

Barkham town, situated at an elevation of 2,670 meters and running in a long stretch along the Suomo Rive, has been well planned. For colonisers, the lack of a substantial existing town offers the advantage of being able to create more precisely what they require. The various sections of Barkham can easily be distinguished, as they were planned by the Chinese colonial administration starting the 1950ıs. Industrial compounds occupy the west end, running into the commercial central area. Across the river, on its south side, education and medical facilities are located.

In appearance, Barkham is scarcely a Tibetan town. Two very small lhakangs on the townıs northern slopes overlook the sprawl of Chinese civic developments below. Of the original town there is virtually no trace. Before 1950, Barkham consisted of a small monastery, two strongholds of the Chogtse chieftain, as well as about twenty mud and stone stockaded village houses and the tents of various traders, which formed a small street.

In terms of population, however, Barkham does retain a quite strong Tibetan identity. The town had 18,505 officially recognized inhabitants over a decade ago, in1984, with projections for over 22,000 in the future. Barkhamıs municipal population must have surpassed this number already, and at least half are Tibetans. These Tibetans residents, generally of highly sinicized appearance, mostly work in government departments and industrial units, or run small shops scattered throughout the town. Like Chabcha, Barkham has been mated in the image of a Chinese town, but functions through the participation of Tibetans as much as Chinese inhabitants. Outside the town, the countryside is overwhelmingly Tibetan in population.

While the PLA was heavily involved in the early stages of colonial development in TAP'S, its role has altered in the current stage of consolidation. It now maintains a holding, supply and communications role for the army, and takes part in the more commercialized exploitation of resources in the region, as State organs have been encouraged to do in recent times. With its transport, supply and manpower resources, the army is in a prime position to participate in the lumber industry, especially the extraction and conveyancing of timber.

A second PLA complex exists at the western end of town. The PLA Barkham Military Sub-Area Political Instruction Brigade shares a compound with the Ngawa T&QAP Militia Reserve Duty Training Center, next to the PAP Fire Fighting and Hygiene units. Ngawa T&QAP is notorious as a region of Tibetan unrest, and the ideological and military training of locally-stationed armed forces is clearly considered a necessity.


Barkham County, with its busy and prosperous county seat, might be presumed to be the center of Ngawa's prefectural economy. It isn't. Barkhamıs GDP, 195.4 million Yuan in 1994", was dwarfed by that of Wenchuan, with 502.2 million Yuan. Barkham does stand in second place, but the picture is not as good as it might seem. Unlike Wenchuan, where production is dominantly in the secondary (manufacturing and processing) sector, Barkham's tertiary sector (104.4 million Y in 1994) made up 53.4% of Barkham's county GDP. The large government administrative offices, police establishments, fiscal and financial units, schools, hospitals and transport units would all be represented by that figure and probably constitute most of it. The more advanced elements of tertiary industry have yet to arrive. The unusually large tertiary output boosted per capita GDP to 3,489 Yuan per capita GDP in 1994, high enough to place it well ahead of Sichuan Province's 2,477 Yuan. China, rather than local Tibetans, may be the winner from such government activity since it strengthens Central Government control rather than actualizes autonomy.

Primary and secondary production are more modest, at 32.1 million Yuan and 58.9 million respectively. The paltry primary sector figure is eye-catching. Only Dzamthang County, which like Barkham is under heavy forestry exploitation, ranks lower. Dividing the county's primary production by its rural population makes clear the level of production recorded accounts for no more than the farmers and pastoralists could produce. The trees removed from Barkham County forests are not counted as Barkham County production, but as national or provincial production. The Chinese Constitution appropriates natural resources for the State, allowing them to disappear from local economic statistics, and largely from local benefit. In some cases county or prefectural level processing of raw materials may occur, allowing some productivity to benefit the local area.


In 1990, 32,000 of Barkham County's 58,000 population, or 55%, was registered as belonging to the rural sector. This is a relatively low percentage for a county within a TAP, but is accounted for by the large urban population of at least 22,000 in Barkharn town. Rural activity in Barkharn consists of both agriculture and pastoralism, with cultivation possible in the county's alpine and river valleys due to long hours of sunshine, good water resources, and arable soil. The countryside remains thoroughly Tibetan, full of traditional villages with fine stone houses. Chinese farmers have not, so far, moved into Barkham. Official sources report primary industry in the county, which would include all agricultural pastoral, forestry and mining output, was worth 32.1 million yuan in 1994.

Farming methods appear to have remained essentially traditional apart from the supply of electricity for household lighting and occasional milling of grain. Although official sources are wont to extol the greater mechanization of agriculture, tractors are seldom seen in use by farmers. Yaks are still the main source of power for ploughing. They are reliable, need no fuel from distant suppliers, and even provide both food and the fuel to cook it with. Orchards supplement the grain harvest, as well as potatoes and beans in the more riverine areas, but much of the crop is for personal consumption, not sale. Farmers therefore enjoy a relatively comfortable life, sufficient to build new houses of high quality, but not to earn much cash. Rural per capita net income for the prefecture was reported as 772 Yuan for 1992.

Grain prices are fixed at a low rate by the government, and the grain market is a govenment monopoly. Farmers do not, therefore, profit much by good harvests. They must diversify into cash crops such as rapeseed if their income is to benefit from market forces. Such diversification is not always possible in rural Tibetan areas, hampered by the inherent limitations of high elevation and confounded by poor transport and long distances from major markets. While farmers throughout China are pinched between the State monopoly on low-priced grain and a market economy which compels production of cash crops, Tibetan farmers feel the hardship especially severely. Yet, surprisingly, they have managed to make their lives more comfortable. They have done so by retaining traditional Tibetan methods of living and farming rather than by abandoning then. In so doing they have maximized use of available materials and production methods while attempting to vulnerability to the cash-based economy.

The greater variety of fruit and vegetables now available in the Barkham market results from imports from the Chinese vegetable-growing areas closer to Chengdu. A small amount of local Chinese market gardening is now going on around Barkham as well and is likely to expand as the town's Chinese population expands. Fruit and vegetable sellers in the Barkham market are nearly all Chinese.


The grasslands and alpine pastures of Barkham have provided Tibetans with a rich natural environment for herding for many centuries. Many Tibetans in Barkham are still engaged in pastoralism, and appear quite prosperous. Yet because of government control of the meat produce market, they undoubtedly do not receive full entitlement for their produce, compared to participants in the more open market system for other kinds of produce. As a result the relative prosperity of herders drops.

Yak meat and mutton are available at the Barkham market but not in such quantities as pork, the meat preferred by Chinese consumers. Duck and chicken, also part of the traditional Chinese, not Tibetan, diet, are also offered. Sellers of pork duck and chicken are invariably Chinese. As in Dartsedo, Chinese tastes are more directly catered to than Tibetan. Locally grown yak meat and mutton must therefore be consumed mainly by Barkhamıs meat processing factory, then shipped to China. Local Tibetan produce thus feeds Chinese markets before local needs. Ironically, one of the more common forms of yak meat encountered is small packets of expensive, sliced, dried, spiced "Sichuan style" yak meat.

At least one state-controlled pasture exists in Barkham County. The Barkharn County State Pasture... lies about one hundred kilometers from Barkham town in the western sector of the county. It may be, or have been, a pastoral labor camp. Several other pastoral units are located in the county which appear to be fixed residential districts for settled nomads, a re-organizational practise popular with Chinese authorities though not with the Tibetan herders involved. Many such settlements have been founded in Qinghai Province and in the northern counties of Ngawa T&QAP. The Benzhen Village Pasture is some thirty kilometers northeast of Barkham town. Other known settlements of this type are the Sha'erzong Village Pasture and the Akeli Pasture. Conditions at these places are unknown to the research team, but similar settlements seen elsewhere in Ngawa and other parts of Amdo were uniformly dismal. It is highly likely the authorities are implementing the settled nomads policy in Barkham, as they are doing elsewhere in the Prefecture.

A river deer farm and bear farm are said to exist in Barkham, but the research team did not ascertain their locations.

Natural Resources Exploitation

Much of Barkhamıs prosperity must derive from its involvement in Ngawa T&QAP's lumber industry. Like many Tibetan areas outside the TAR, and the TAR itself, Ngawa has extremely rich forest resources, which China is anxious to exploit. Barkham town is a way station on the lumber extraction transport route between Dzamthang and Shuamalukou, where the road from Barkham meets Route 213 linking the north of Ngawa T&QAP with Chengdu. An enormous quantity of lumber passes through Barkharn on a dally basis. More lumber trucks were observed in Barkham than any other place visited in Ngawa T&QAP Many forestry-related units exist in the town, including the Prefectural Forestry Office, the Prefectural Afforestation Office, the Forestry Hostel and the Forestry Workers Hospital. At the western end of town several lumber processing facilities and yards are located Even the PLA is engaged in the lumber industry in Barkham. An important lumber area of the county lies along the secondary road heading south from Chogtse into Tsenlha, another Tibetan county heavily exploited for lumber. Many logging camps are found along this road.

In some respects Tibetans in Ngawa do share in the benefits of a flourishing forestry industry. Tibetans are employed as forest workers and drivers of logging trucks, both state and privately owned. The general level of prosperity in Barkham indirectly affects agricultural and pastoral Tibetans too. However, the highest profits must be at the marketing end of the industry outside Ngawa, handled by the Chinese. Most of Ngawa's lumber goes into construction and other wood-hungry economic domains inside China.

Most serious is the harmful long-term environmental impact of such unrestrained logging. Logs from virgin forest are still being harvested and constitute the overwhelming majority of what fill the backs of trucks. Afforestation is being carried out, though efforts are inconsistent, varying from meek to vigorous. Some harvesting of replanted forest takes place. But the comparative volumes of virgin and replanted timber being transported through Barkham alone demonstrates there is insufficient preservation of virgin forest. Market demand spurs rates of extraction which outrun conservation attempts.

China has been extracting lumber from Ngawa since the 1950's. Recent benefits to Tibetan lumber industry workers are not reflective of the four decades of exploitation prior to 1990. As the indigenous inhabitants, Tibetans face the destruction of the environment in their supposedly autonomous territory. But Ngawa's lumber industry is not primarily managed by Tibetans. There is little to suggest that China has, as required by its Constitution, given 'due consideration' to local interests. In the course of carrying out studies for this project, researchers frequently encountered resentful sentiments among Tibetans arising from the intensity of logging and its environmental consequences. There is little evidence that Tibetans themselves would voluntarily approve current levels of exploitation were they able to express their wishes freely. The Chinese are able to elicit Tibetan 'demands' that their resources be 'developed' from compliant fora such as local NPC and CPPCC. The principal players and beneficiaries are the Chinese. Whatever the short-term gains, Ngawa Tibetans will ultimately lose one of their finest natural resources. Barkham is not especially notable for mineral deposits, although gold is found in the county... . The researchers have no further information on mining or mineral processing activities in Barkham.

[Reproduced by permission from TIBET: Outside the TAR, by Steven D. Marshall and Susette Ternent Cooke. İ1997, S. Marshall and S. Cooke.]

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