HA 005: Toddy Tappers

Sri Lanka's tree climbing Tamils

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Images & Story by Antoine Jonquière (Instagram | Website) & Marcus Q. Rhinelander (Website)


The palmyra palm is the most common palm tree in northern Sri Lanka and is known as the symbol of the Tamil people. Its fruit and tubers provide food; its leaves and trunks are used for building, and its sap is gathered to make toddy, a mildly alcoholic naturally-fermented “beer”. The tappers who gather the toddy are among the poorest of the poor, suffering both traditional caste discrimination and modern ethnic racism. Traditionally, they are from the “unclean” Nalavar caste, who face barriers in education, hiring and even entering temples.

Climbing the palms without ladders or ropes is difficult and dangerous but it’s one of few options open to the Nalavar people as they have problems finding other work. Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war ended in 2009 but ethnic discrimination continues: a recent tax targets the palmyra toddy gathered by northern Tamils while toddy gathered by southern Sinhalese is exempt. This fiscal discrimination threatens the livelihoods of some of the most disadvantaged members of society. “I wouldn’t want my son to do this work,” one tapper told us, but “it is good work to do well.”

Palmyra palms, which grow up to 30 meters high, are the symbol of Tamil culture as well as a source for products, providing fruit as well as roofing, and the mainstay of the Tamil toddy tappers of northern Sri Lanka.

Twice a day, tappers climb up to empty the pots collecting sap from the palmyra sapathe, the flower buds near the top of the trees, into a plastic jug that hangs at their waist.

Toddy tappers face a host of government regulations. Here, a tapper shows his logbook in which they record the amounts they gather. Tappers can get between 5 to 50 bottles a day, earning 70 rupees (€0.35) per bottle - from which they have to pay fees to the owners of the trees they tap.
Ilavalai co-operative toddy tavern. New taxes would quadruple the license fees on local co-operatives. At the same time, the government has decreased taxes on beer produced in industrial breweries. This has already forced some cooperatives to close; more fear that they will have to close soon.
Inside Ilavalai tavern, a tapper adds his afternoon’s haul to the barrel. The toddy is often consumed the same day. Naturally fermented in the barrels with airborne yeasts, it varies from only slightly alcoholic to the strength of beer, depending on how long is has to ferment.

The work is difficult, poorly-paid and dangerous; injuries are common. Sandhuran, 26, gave up tapping because of the dangers. He now works as a construction labourer, one of the few occupations open to members of the Nalavar caste besides tapping.
Nirosan and his younger brother Tanusan outside the village temple, which they cannot enter because of the “unclean” status of the Nalavar caste. Nirosan, from a family of tappers, works as a cook: “If people there knew what my family does for work, it would be a problem… I cannot say.”


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