Riwoqe Paper 1997

Published in: 'The Mirror' No. 42, Conway, Mass.


On the Road to
Environmental Projects in Riwoqe County,
Qamdo Prefecture - TAR
by Daniel Winkler

We had been driving on this bumpy and muddy road known as the Sichuan-Tibet "Highway" for four days. Cloudy skies concealed the peaks of freshly snow capped mountains. Regularly the monsoon clouds released their heavy load, causing the bad roads to disintegrate even more. Frequently the old Beijing-Jeep provided by Riwoqe's Forest Police broke down, once it got stuck in the middle of a flooded creek. The water flushed out the muddy inside floors. Luckily there was a truck nearby, which pulled us out within an hour, not without exacting a small fortune from our predicament. On our fourth day we finally entered Riwoqe County, our destination. Crossing the Dzekri La we were greeted by a mountain made of beaming white marble under a deep blue sky. The slopes were clad with dense dark spruce forests interspersed with lush pastures. It truly seemed like paradise. Very appropriately Takzham Gompa, the first monastery entering Riwoqe is built in Zangdok Pelri style, representing Padmasambhava's own divine abode.


Riwoqe is famous throughout Tibet for the impressive Tsuklakhang temple founded in 1276, which is the main seat of the Taklung Kagyü school in Kham. The prayer hall is build as an atrium, its open roof rests on huge pillars of gigantic spruce trunks. Some decades ago the county seat has been moved from Riwoqe to Ratsaka, which is located on the northern branch of the Sichuan-Tibet "Highway", which connects Qamdo with Nagqu. Now Ratsaka is generally referred to as Riwoqe Xian (Pinyin: Leiwuqi Xian). Our plan was to visit Riwoqe and conduct a feasibility study tour to understand the local situation and gather information. The result will be two project proposals, for which we need to find funding to launch the projects in 1998. Once arrived in Riwoqe we were received warmly by the forest department. Yet to our dismay the weekend was ahead and everybody was out having 'Hongkong Picnics'. We were left with the recommendation to rest. Finally we had reached our destination, we surely did not feel like resting! Instead Pema Gyatso, my translator originally from Amdo, and I adapted quickly to local customs and staged our own Hongkong Picnic, by hiking on the mountains surrounding Riwoqe. We were taking it easy uphill, both of us still had to get used to the altitude, so we were enjoying the flowers, small blue Iris, bright crimson Incarvillea and purple and white Rhododendron shrubs.


Two locations had been selected we should visit as future project sites. One was Yiri, the other was Chamoling, about 60km to the NW of Riwoqe. Chamoling (Tramoling, Pinyin: Changmaoling), which is already mentioned in the Gesar epos, was declared a Nature Preserve in 1976 to protect its wildlife, especially the population of Red Deer (Cervus elaphus macneilli), which due to the efforts of the local people and administration has survived. In many areas in Tibet deer populations went extinct in the 1960s and 1970s. In addition the area is supposed to contain populations of Snow Leopard, Wolf, Tibetan Brown Bear, White-lipped Deer, Musk Deer, Goral, Blue Sheep, Eared Pheasant, Brahminy Shelduck, and Crane to name a few rarer species. The forest department has hired one wildlife guard to ensure wildlife protection in an area of 637 km2, which is located between 3850m and 5274 m a.s.l.. The landscape is dominated by grassland mountains used for grazing. The forests, besides a few patches, have already disappeared a long time ago as they did in many other areas of Riwoqe. Valley grounds of the middle reaches of the Ke Chu are wide, but already too high up for agriculture. The higher peaks are barren and rocky. Yak husbandry is the main mean of local sustenance of the Khampas. Their houses are not two storied as in more fertile areas of Kham, but very low, one storied flat roofed houses. Before 1976, a herd of 60 Red deer was captured and is kept in captivity, now counting 120 deer. Yet herd growth is stagnating for many years due to fodder shortage in winter and the limited space allotted. The antlers of the deer are used as Chinese medicine and thus make keeping the herd a profitable business.


The forest department, which also is in charge of wildlife, asked ASIA to assist in finding a deer farm expert to train local people in order to improve deer keeping and breeding as well as antler production. In addition a better fodder base is required, a well needs to be dug within the compound, and the compound itself needs to be enlarged. Future plans include looking into the possibility of processing the antlers into medicine within Riwoqe. In regard of the wider preserve we intend to carry out a scientific study on the status of wildlife in the Chamoling preserve and we want to map out the area to ensure good protection of the most important wildlife habitats. The core issue, besides poaching, seems to be the intensive use of the area by pastoralists. The wildlife might be marginalised by domestic livestock, but at least they have coexisted for centuries.


I was very much looking forward going to Yiri. Yiri is not only known for its beautiful scenery of densely forested valleys and steep mountains, but also famous for its hot springs. I was asked to evaluate the touristic potential of the springs. Word had spread that I am working on a guide book to the hot springs of Tibet. The 95km drive to Yiri district (Yiri Xiang, ca. 3200m to 5100m) took us a whole day. Driving time alone was over six hours, in many locations the road deserves its name only due to the fact that a jeep is not blocked from progressing. In these places walking is surely more comfortable and probably faster. Lunch was served to us in a black tent by very hospitable nomads, consisting of salty butter tea, tsampa, yogurt and a dried hindleg of Yak, from which we were invited to slice off our favorite chunk. Once in Yiri (3800m) we were housed in the newly built hot spring guest house located below the springs. The 43°C hot water wells up on both sides of a creek, which at this point undercuts a 200m cliff of vertical limestone. The only drawback to enjoying the springs was that I was permanently stared at by dozens of friendly people. Hundreds had been ordered to Yiri to work on the road. Being the first foreigner they have ever seen, clearly incited their curiosity. Many houses in Yiri are two storied and people engage in farming, growing barley, rape seed and vegetables. But the backbone of the local economy is keeping livestock. Human settlement does not seem to date back as long as in other areas, the spruce forests in the valleys and around the villages were in relatively good condition. Most of Yiri's forests, which still cover about a third of the area, are used as grazing grounds and thus undergrowth is clearly reduced, not allowing the impression of true primary forests. Spruce trees (Picea balfouriana) reach 25 to 30m in height with  a circumference of 2m at an age of 300 years. Besides spruce there are junipers (Juniperus tibeticaJ.wallichiana; 8-15m height), which dominate dry sites or especially degraded south-facing slopes. Otherwise they form the secondary canopy in less disturbed south slopes. In several sites forest fires had fragmented the forest cover, some of these sites now boast young stands, others have been converted into pastures. Remote areas of Yiri should contain undisturbed forests, predestined for conservation. Forests below 4000m are hounded by bands of Macaques monkeys and Leopards. Otherwise a similar range of wildlife might be encountered as in Chamoling. So far Yiri, which has a school since last year, has not been used as a source for commercial timber due to the bad transport conditions, but the neighboring Sankar district was started to be exploited, thus it is only a question of time, as to the forest industry will reach Yiri.


So far Riwoqe's forest department prefers designating more easily accessible areas for fulfilling the cutting quota issued annually (1997: 5000m3) by the prefectural forest department in Qamdo. The felling is carried out by local people, organized by the county's sawmill, which also manages timber transport and marketing; 60% go to Nagchu's timber market supplying the forest-free areas of TAR, 40% to Chengdu accessing China's timber market. The sawmill's profits go to the county. Since the forestry industry was introduced in the 60s, the forest department relies mostly on natural regeneration, by retaining some trees in felling sites as a seed source. But natural regeneration is a very slow process, which does not guarantee regrowth of dense forests, especially when livestock is present as everywhere. Only in the last year saplings have been imported from Payul (Baiyu) near Derge (Dege) and planted. Also a tiny nursery was started in Riwoqe in 1996. Upon inquiring the local forest administration had no idea about the amount of standing timber in Riwoqe and its annual increment, two figures, which are an absolute prerequisite for any sustainable forestry.


The headman of Yiri district asked ASIA to help develop Yiri's timber resource. He suggested improving the road, building a hydro-electric plant to supply power for a future local sawmill. The forest department also expressed interest in supporting nature and wildlife protection, besides developing a local tourist industry, based on the beautiful environment and the hot springs.


ASIA's intention in Riwoqe is to help establish sustainable forestry with a strong nature conservation component, based on ecological and economical principles. The project's long term intention is to benefit the local population, empower them to manage their local resources in a sustainable way ensuring the survival of their chosen way of life, as well as their resources.


As a first step we need to evaluate the ecological and economical potential more precisely and involve the local people as much as possible in shaping the project. We need to classify the forest area into categories: such as intensive use (timber production), extensive use (i.e. grazing) and protection, to produce a landuse map for the district. ASIA will help training local people to establish a tree nursery and start reforestation of selected sites with bought saplings. To guarantee economical sustainability the project should partially be financed out of timber sales, thus creating a model for other areas, which might not have the fortune of foreign assistance.


Having had the experience of crossing the whole of northern Central Tibet and Kham from Lhasa via Nagqu, Qamdo, Dege and Ganzi (Kandze) to Chengdu, my former assumption was verified, that extensive areas of Tibet had been deforested in historical times. Wide, wide areas of Tibet are in actuality a cultural landscape shaped by pastoralism through millennia. In addition nowadays serious overgrazing is taken its toll in many areas. For example the hill sides of the Kyichu valley around Lhasa presently nearly resemble the barren hill sides of Ladakh. Yet going up the valley at first grasslands and a little further up shrub vegetation reappear. Around Truldar village before Drigung Monastery there are last stands of north-slope birch forests and even one stand of junipers. Otherwise all forests are gone. The last three days of the drive from Lhasa to Riwoqe I was scanning valley after valley along the road for traces of forests. In most valleys all I spotted was a lost single tree here or there on steep cliffs or a small stand of juniper high above the valley ground. These relics were testifying to the former presence of forests in areas which are today nearly completely free of forests.  In Eastern Kham the situation was a little better regarding historical deforestation, yet there modern timber extraction has speeded up the process of deforestation enormously. Historical deforestation impacted especially the areas around settlements, the south-facing slopes and the high altitude summer grazing grounds. They have been intensely cleared everywhere. They all had to give way to pastures, which are of much higher value to herders than forests. Of course at a certain point in history when the forests start to disappear, people realize their preciousness, but then the need for fuel and timber perpetuates forest reduction until total elimination. In addition the Tibetan way of life is very well adapted to a treeless environment and planting trees is not part of the traditional lifestyle of common people.


In Riwoqe forests are still covering about a fifth of the area, but they are clearly declining. The summer pastures - many of them below the tree line - are forest free, nowadays yaks transport fire wood up to the summer camps. The slopes are losing more and more of their forest cover due to timber extraction and grazing. ASIA hopes to be able to help stopping the degradation and reverting the process. It is crucial that any changes will actually benefit the local people.

Last edited on Sun, May 20, 2012, 1:09 am