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Tibet Outside the TAR: Lithang Dzong

By Steven D. Marshall and Susette Ternent Cooke



Some Tibetans do practice agriculture in Lithang County, although most of the population is engaged in pastoralism and farmers will also graze some animals. In areas where shallow valleys provide some shelter from cold and wind, highland crops including barley, wheat, peas and beets can be cultivated in the short growing season Farming does not support a high economic level. Market produce in the county town was in extremely limited supply.  Most farmers in the region, while apparently self-sufficient in grain, do not produce a surplus. Agricultural supplies for the town population must be transported from distant distribution centers, principally Darseto. The growing Chinese population requires foodstuff not produced locally, namely rice, pork and vegetables, drawing the town into the wider Chinese economic system as the needs of its Chinese residents must be met by expanded transport, supply and sale.

As Lithang is not a rich grain-producing area, no processing facilities exist in the town. The countyís Grain Office is a moderately-sized compound in the town's secondary east-west street.

(Forge Ahead Street, Ch. Qianjinjie near the County Hospital)


Pastoralism is the mainstay of Lithangís local economy. True nomadic pastoralists and herders of more settle habits graze yaks, goats, sheep and horses on Lithang ís high plateau grasslands in essentially traditional style. West of the county town and extensive high plateau, treeless and windswept, rises gradually to the pass just beyond the Lithang-Bathang county boundary, an extreme environment where no livelihood other than nomadic pastoralism is possible. The black tents of the pastoralists dot the wide grasslands.Between Lithang county town and the county boundary with Bathang, no Chinese settlements are found, only occasional daoban, and daoban buildings within Tibetan villages. There was little evidence of force settlement of nomads, now commonly seen in northern Ngawa TAP and other parts of Amdo, although the practice is gaining favor with the Kartse TAP authorities and some is admitted to have taken place in Lithang. In 1992 a total of 693 pastoral households in Kartse TAP were newly settled in fixed districts.

Ltihang's pastoral industry potential has received official categorization for exploitation. Together with Sershul, Sethar, Kartse and Darsedo, Lithang has been designated a concentrated production area for cattle and sheep meat products. With Serhul and Serthar it is considered a concentrated production area for Tibetan sheep, and with 6 other counties of Kartse TAP a center for producing yaks. Such official categorization are not simply stating the obvious regarding Lithang's natural economy. They point to the Chinese State's focus on specific exploitable economic resources. Sheep raising in particular has been targeted for collectivized production methods in Tibetan areas, with intensive grazing in fenced pastures that quickly lead to serious land degradation. A prerequisite will be the increased forced settlement of pastoralists and fencing of grasslands.

Natural Resources Exploitation

Lithang has rich local lumber resources at elevations lower than its high plateaux, and lies on a major lumber transport route. As such, a fair proportion of the town area is taken up by lumber industry-related compounds, from the industry's overall administration, to transportation of raw lumber, and finally to its marketing. While Lithang county town is situated in a wide, treeless valley, mountain areas of the county in their natural state have extensive forest cover. Logging has been fierce in some districts. Along Route 318 severe deforestation and land erosion following cutting are in evidence, both before and after the town. South of Lithang lie further extensively deforested stretches, particularly up to the small township of Jiawa. Once areas closed to the main road have been cleared, loggers will penetrate into remoter forests, struggling to keep up with market demand.

Some of the lumber seen on trucks in Lithang is being carried from the forests of Lithang to the Chengdu district lumber yards. But much of it has been brought from Eastern TAR, bound for the same destination.  Kham functions as a transition zone for extracted lumber as much as an exploited area itself. By far the greatest proportion of lumber trucks observed in Lithang bore Chamdo registration plates (Zang B), belonging either to transport units or to self-employment businessmen. A few other registered in the TAR came from as far away as Lhasa (Zang A) and Ngari (Zang G). Many of the drivers are Tibetan.

In Lithang county town several units are devoted to the lumber industry. At the fork on the eastern edge of town a lumber checking station checks a steady daily stream of loaded trucks daily.  On the west side of town, on the northern slopes above the Martyrs' Cemetery, is a seedling nursery.  The County Forestry Office, including Afforestation and Fire Prevention occupies one of the largest compounds on the main road at the edge of the eastern Tibetan suburb. A large modern compound just west of the main junction, operational at these premises probably since summer 1995, deals with forestry on a secondary industry basis in the County Wood Products Agency Services Company.  This new company represents an important expansion of the State lumber exploitation activities, from extraction of raw material to provisions of services to a wider market interest.

Although Lithang has regional forests, they lie some distance from the county town itself. Local houses built in the traditional style in the town therefore use less lumber that those of Dawa or Nyarong where forests are closer to the county town. Restoration at the Lithang Gompa, on the other hand funded by the government, faces no restrictions. Massive quantities of logs have been delivered to the monastery for use in its construction.

China is well aware of the need to replace the forests that have been destroyed by zealous logging, but its reafforestation record has not been reassuring and has yet to become notably productive. Despite the efforts that are being made to replant trees, short-term market demand outstrips long-term caution and planning. Loss of the forest environment also spells danger for the wildlife whose natural habitat is destroyed as the trees are felled.  Several rare species inhabit Lithang's forests, among thlem the white-lipped deer, speckled antelope and golden haired monkey. Valuable medicinal plants, which bring high prices on the Chinese market, are also endangered. Unfortunately Tibetans, as hunters and customers, willingly contribute to the destruction of wildlife, as the considerable number of wild animal pelts for sale in Lithang's shop testifies.

Since the 1980's gold minning has been earmarked for intensified development of the Kartse prefectural authorities. The Gold-Factory-Gully Mine in Lithang, constructed as part of the prefectural production drive and now supported in some capacity through the Lithang PLA Base was one of the prefecture's leading gold producers by 1989-1990. The presence of a huge gold mining machine in a river bed about 40 kilometers west of Lithang county town show the seriousness of the State's intent to exploit Lithang for its gold deposits. No workers were seen near the machine as it was temporarily frozen out of action by seasonal conditions, but much equipment was lying nearby along the river bank. A slogan on the machine reads "Relying on one's own efforts, arduously undertake the ground breaking work of vigorously developing industry in the nationality areas." Environmental damage from such mining methods is considerable.  Gravel scooped from the river bed then sieved, is simply left in huge mounds. The river's bed and banks are left unrepaired.

On numerous occasions Tibetans throughout Kartse TAP express anger and resentment at the Chinese State's exploitation of the region's gold and timber resources. Umbrage is aroused not only by what they regard as massive theft of their resources, but also from religious convictions which urge moderation, if not restraint, in stripping the earth of what they view as "treasures."

[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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