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Tibet Outside the TAR: Dechen County and Dechen Dzong

By Steven D. Marshall and Susette Ternent Cooke


Brief Description and Impression

Dechen County exists on an agricultural/pastoral economy, supplemented since the Chinese takeover with some mining and forestry. Its population retains the historical Tibetan predominance, intermixed with other indigenous ethnic groups and a small proportion of Chinese. Even in Dechen county town it is Tibetans who dominate, a pattern under threat in many TAP county towns but not likely to change in the immediate future in a place as remote and unalluring to Chinese immigration as Dechen.

The county town of Dechen sits at an elevation of 3,400 meters, surrounded by mountains and ranged approximately north-south across hilly ground at the head of a tributary valley of the Salween.... Most of the town consists of typically banal and shoddily-built Chinese control and administration units, but tucked up a little valley spur on the northeast edge are the remnants of the old town, Šand pocket of traditional architecture, not immediately visible when approaching Dechen from the south. On the bluff at the north end the ruins of Dechen's former monastery still overlooks the town, a reminder that this used to be a flourishing religious center. On the surrounding steep slopes pastoralists graze their animals.

Dechen County forms the northernmost tip of Yunnan Province, and is the most northerly of Dechen TAP¹s three counties. Most of its territory is confined between the Salween and Mekong Rivers as they plunge southward from Eastern Tibet. With its high, mountainous, snowbound terrain at an average elevation of 3,560 meters, Dechen connects geographically with Eastern Tibet and the southwestern corner of Kham. Culturally and politically it has received strong influences from these areas. Culturally it belongs to Khan, with the distinctiveness of Kham's discrete regions. Like most of Yunnan Province, it is considered a poor region, ³backward² in Chinese terminology. In the days of traditional pack-animal transport Dechen maintained open connections with contiguous areas, but in modern times, dominated by fragile roads and fickle motor vehicles, Dechen is frequently isolated when deep snowfalls block motorable roads for weeks or months at a time. Dechen has suffered from the twin difficulties of inclusion under a poor province's administration, and the alteration of its communications lines by divisions drawn by the Chinese State. Contact with Kham has thereby been minimized.

While roads are not impassable, Dechen is linked to neighboring Tibetan areas in the three main directions. To the north, through the town of Yanjing just across the TAR border, a road runs to Markham, the most important communication node in the extreme east of the TAR which feeds into Chamdo and thence to Lhasa, or back into Kham via Bathang. What is officially considered the main road linking Dechen to the rest of Yunnan Province runs south then south-east, to the prefectural capital of Gyalthang.

Rural economy in Dechen County is a mixture of agriculture and pastoralism, depending on local conditions. In the far north, including around the county seat, pastoralism is the main form of economy practiced, as the areas is too high, cold and dry for cultivation except along and above river valleys, where terraces have been carved out of steep slopes. Farming methods are traditional because the region is too poor to support mechanization. In 1992 the per capita net income for the rural population of Dechen TAP was only 321 Yuan, placing farmers here among the poorest under Chinese administration... .


In the high cold pastures of northern Dechen, Tibetans practice traditional herding of yaks, goats and sheep. Further sought, cattle and pigs area also raised, and many Tibetans in the old part of Dechen town raise chickens, as well as pigs in little pens along the sides of the street opposite the houses. Exploitation of local animal products does not appear to have been much developed so far. A carpet factory in Dechen makes use of the region's wool, but no meat processing factory or abattoir was observed in or near the town. Dechen's herders must therefore lead a fairly self-sufficient life, without over dependence on markets organized to supply meat and animal products to China, as is the case in Amdo and most of Kham. Compared to herders in these other Tibetan areas, however, Dechen's pastoralist appear significantly poorer.

A very large meat processing factory on the edge of Lijian, with its superior electric supply, transport facilities and large labor force may utilize Tibetan pastoral products. An animal-fodder producing section of this factory, walled off and surrounded by an electrified fence, has the appearance of a laogai or forced labor unit within the factory, but this was not confirmed.


Dechen County is reported to have 36.7% forest cover, and forestry is certainly regarded by the authorities as a valuable industry in an otherwise resource-poor region. Inadequate transport facilities must moderate the degree of forest exploitation in Dechen compared with other parts of Kham. County lumber processing yard which fill the valley cleft at the edge of the lower town section appear to be utilizing timber for local use more than for shipment elsewhere. Construction in the town includes new Tibetan-style house, which require substantial amounts of wood. Some logs in the processing yards are clearly from virgin, not reforested areas.

Despite extremely poor transport facilities some of Dechen's lumber may end up in the markets further south. A huge lumber yard north of Shigu in the southern tip of Gyalthang County, the provincial level ³Xinhua² lumber works, contains extensive stockpiles of logs, some of which were large enough to be from original forest growth. In general, however, Yunnan Province has made commendable efforts to address the need for afforestation, and many successfully-afforested areas and seedling plantations may be seen in Northern Yunnan. Environmental protection departments were carrying out detailed investigations of land in Weixi and Dechen Counties in 1992, and almost 2,000 square kilometers of land have been declared a nature reserve in the Baimang Mountains in the northern part of Dechen County. Environmental protection, while well-intentioned, is not always backed by enforcement of environmental laws. Among Dechen's forest products are to be found many valuable medicinal plants, as well as wildlife which may fetch high market prices. Chinese and Tibetan poachers of protected fauna and flora have not been greatly deterred by China's environmental protection laws.

Dechen has mineral resources, some of which are being exploited. Dechen County reportedly contains the largest asbestos mine in Northwestern Yunnan, as well as deposits of zinc, crystal, gold, silver, lead, iron, cooper, tine chromium and gypsum. In the town two units are concerned with the mining industry, both situated at the southern approach to the town. One is a simple lead and zinc ore processing facility, while the other, a prefectural level unit, the Diqing Lead and Zinc Materials Supply Company, deals with marketing. Neither appear highly developed but are a representative presence of interest in exploiting mineral resources.


Dechen's poor transport links, small population and generally low level of modern development have mitigated against industrialization in the region. The small amount of industry that exists utilizes upon local resources and further development must depend on improved transport facilities as the first necessity. The town's largest industrial facility is the Dechen Wool Spinning Factory, which produces wool for the making of traditional Tibetan carpets. This is probably a welcome development because it can employ local craftsmen in making a traditional products using locally-produced raw materials, in particular goat's wool. The factory markets these high-quality carpets in Tibet and Sichuan. As a county enterprise, most benefits goes to the state, not the Tibetan workers whose traditional handicraft is the industry's basis.

[Reproduced by permission from TIBET: Outside the TAR, by Steven D. Marshall and Susette Ternent Cooke. ©1997, S. Marshall and S. Cooke.]

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