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Tibet Outside the TAR: Dzamthang Dzong

By Steven D. Marshall and Susette Ternent Cooke


Brief Description and Impressions

Dzamthang is a rather mysterious county, locked between the eastern edge of Kham, the heartland Ngawa counties and the southern tip of Golog. Passing from Barkham through the northern corner of Chuchen and into Dzamthang is to make the transition from Kham to Amdo. In the past, Dzamthang lay on an important Amdo-Kham trade and communications route between Pema in the Golog territories and Draggo and Kartse in Kham, along which many pilgrims and religious teachers, traders and caravaneers travelled over the centuries. A rugged, richly forested mountain region carved by the deep upper Dadu watershed, Dzamhang was remote and alien to the Chinese when they invaded Kham and Amdo in 1950. It was not made a county until 1958, a measure of the Chinese occupiers' difficulty in deciding how to deal with such an unknown quantity.

The county of Dzamthang covers an area of 6,606 square kilometers, most of it lying at an elevation well over 3,500 meters. The total county population is the lowest in Ngawa T&QAP. Population density is 4.8 persons/square kilometer, the prefecture's second lowest after Kakhog. Everything about it seems Tibetan, except for the county seat. Here the Chinese have built a small, unprepossessing town, which they call Rangkezhen... It lies at an elevation of 3,320 meters in a beautiful valley of cultivated river flats and hills on a sharp loop in the Duke River. The surrounding mountain forest covered with dark pines. The compact town area consists of a main east-west street, with no major side streets but short allies leading to compounds. When the Chinese first arrived they built on the south side of the main street closer to the river, where a few remnant revolutionary buildings with their gabled roofs and verandahs still stand in ramshackle condition.


Dzamthang had the lowest 1994 GDP (66.8 million Yuan) of any county in Ngawa T&QAP. It lagged far behind Chuchen and Tsenlha each over 90 million Yuan. But both of those have more than double Dzamthang's population, according to official figures, which places Dzamthang's per capita GDP (2,227 Yuan for secondary production and 21 million for tertiary. As is the case in many of the remote Tibetan locations, tertiary output is probably composed principally of government-operated educational medical and administrative activity.

But there is a problem with Dzamthang's economic numbers. It is true that primary output is shown as the largest sector of GDP, and it is true that natural resources extraction, including forest is regarded as primary industry. But 29.8 million Yuan could not possibly include the huge volume of timber that daily passes out of Dzamthang. If it is not credited on the county's balance sheet, then it must appear at a higher administrative level. A comparison of county and prefectural statistics rules out the possibility that trees and minerals are part of prefectural primary production. In fact, they should be expected to appear as Chinese national production. All natural resources in China are claimed for the State by China's Constitution. China does not only deny that unfair appropriation of Tibetan resources is occurring, or that inequitable distribution of the resultant wealth follows. China, per its Constitution, denies there are 'Tibetan' forests: there are only Chinese forests. Even logs in Tibetan rivers belong to China, according to signs posted along the roads, and anyone who attempts to salvage one will be held responsible for stealing from the State. Thus Tibetans, having been stripped of any ownership or control of their natural resources, should not find it surprising they have also been relieved of the benefits of the harvest as well.


Dzamthang is a primarily pastoral area, but some agriculture is possible along river valleys, where barley and beans are cultivated. At present it is carried out at a mostly self-sufficient level. Few vegetables are available in he county town and even a county-level Grain and Oil Office was not seen. A rising Chinese population will require closer attention to the supply of agricultural produce. Local market gardening with the aid of greenhouses has occurred in Lhasa, land rented by Chinese market gardeners from Tibetan villagers has in the long-term been lost by the Tibetans.


Pastoralism is the principal form of local economy, and appears to have been left to traditional practises in some parts of the county. When the Chinese wish to develop a pastoral products market, they institute fencing and forced settlement of herders. While such policies have been widely implemented in Ngawa T&QAP, Dzamthang appears to have been less subjected to them than Kakhog or Ngawa. No meat processing Facilities, a sure sign of Chinese market control, were seen in the county town. However, the Dzamthang County State Pasture lies east of the county seat, a State-run pastoral unit which will have involved the disruption and control of traditional nomads.

Natural Resources Exploitation

The Chinese probably did not begin to log the Dzamthang districts until the 1960's, when final administrative decisions regarding the region had been made and the county seat was firmly fixed at its present site. The town's Forestry compound certainly appears to date from this period, and stands at the heart of the town incorporating the County Forestry Office, Forestry Labor Union, CCP Forestry Branch and PAP Forestry unit, a measure of the lumber industry's importance to the County administration.

Dzamthang is famous, even in the richly forested Ngawa Prefecture, for its extensive virgin forests. Forestation is conspicuously dense compared to Barkham County, even along the highway. Dzamthang's forests are now under intense pressure however, as the rapidly expanding Chinese construction industry demands huge supplies of wood from domestic sources. The main road's major function is to facilitate the extraction and transportation of lumber out of Dzmathang: it carries almost no other traffic. A daily stream of dozens of logging trucks ferries Dzamthang's lumber through Barkham on to Lunggu,(Wenchuan), where they cross the Min River Bridge to head for the lumber yards of the Chengdu district.

[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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