Toddy Climbing Business Faces Fall

It takes a great deal of bravery to climb up one of the 50 metre toddy palm trees outside Mandalay. Aung Zaw, a “tapper” or “climber”, has done it for 15 years. Strong winds, shaky ladders, slippery rugs, almost nothing scares him. Today, however, he fears for his job as the toddy industry is in free fall.

The number of toddy climbers has dropped significantly over recent years. According to Dr Kalyar Lu from Mandalay University, there were around 100,000 braves in 2007, while there are only a few thousand of them left today. The reason for this steep decline is the dip in harvesters’ income and mounting disaffection among the youth in rural areas for a high-risk job that reaps little rewards.

A handful of toddy-lovers are not giving up, though. Last week, Meiktila University hosted a workshop on toddy palm tree conservation, the second of its kind. Organised by Ayaer Shwe Yee Toddy and different cooperatives of palm product producers, the workshop gathered 100 botanists, businesses, and environmentalists. Participants discussed the challenges the industry faces from the shortfall in labour, the preservation of landscapes and the technologies the sector would need to boost production.

For the toddy business definitely has potential. From roots to leaves, nothing is wasted and a variety of products are derived from the emblematic tree. Its sap is used to produce wine and stronger alcohol can be obtained from distillation. Toddy fruits make for delicious jelly, kimchi and jaggery. Leaves are turned into accessories and decorative craft for tourists.

Some participants in the workshop have even bigger appetites and want to take Myanmar’s palm trees to the international market. U Maung Maung Soe, the owner of Thalarwaddy Limited, wants to invest in palm sugar but he faces many obstacles.

For a start, Myanmar lacks the technology to harvest palm trees in an efficient way and global competition is tough. Thailand, Indonesia, India and Cambodia have all invested in the sector and developed mass production.

Then, Maung Maung Soe needs to run his processing equipment with clean water, a rare commodity he says. “In very few areas, will you find the quality of the water I need for my machines not to rust,” he adds.

Finally, access to finance is dire for climbers. Few banks – if any – lend them money. Their machetes and creaky ladders are not accepted as collateral by private banks and the Small & Medium Industrial Development Bank’s pockets are not large enough to cater for their needs.

If new ways of making money with toddy palm trees are not found, the trees will simply be cut and sold, adding to Myanmar’s massive deforestation problem. According to a recent UN report, Myanmar loses an average of 546,000 hectares of forest each year, making it the third-worst deforestation rate in the world behind Brazil and Indonesia.

“If nothing is done quickly, the tropical zones hosting most of the country’s palm trees will turn into sand deserts. The government should do more,” says Daw Devi Thant Can of the Myanmar Green Network.

An option, she reckons, would be to register some of Myanmar’s toddy-rich regions, like Bagan, to the UNESCO world heritage.

Workshop participants agreed to reconvene in a month. Meanwhile, Aung Zaw will continue to climb his 40 trees a day hoping others will be able to do so after him.


Source: Myanmar Times

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