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.”