by Randima Attygalle
Palmyrah or Thal or Panei is synonymous with the northern peninsula of Sri Lanka; its splendour often romanticised in verse, cinema and all forms of art associated with the region.
Yielding a variety of food and beverages, palmyrah is also a rich source for exotic handicrafts.
Papyrus or pus kola derived out of palm leaves occupied a significant place as writing material in ancient Sri Lanka and India. In Tamil culture, palmyrah is revered as ‘karpaha’ or the celestial tree with each of its parts rich in economical value.
A plantation of national value, palmyrah cultivation and development was severely affected by the civil war which engulfed Sri Lanka in the last three decades.
Today the Palmyrah Development Board is engaged in several ambitious schemes including advanced research and expanding the foreign market in an effort to revive this traditional national industry
The popular saying in the North and East regions of the island is that ‘if you got eight Palmyrah trees, one family is secured’.
A kapruka and a source of nourishment and shelter alike, palmyrah (Borrassus flabellifer) is popularly known as Thal or Panei among the Sinhala and Tamil communities of Sri Lanka respectively.
This unique gift of a flora by mother nature is a metaphor for the Northern Peninsula in the country and an expression of its geo-economic-social and cultural facets.
Impact of civil war
Not a single part of a palmyrah tree goes unutilised for diverse means of human consumption, ranging from food and beverage production, handicrafts, timber production and a buffer for soil and sea erosion. Resilient to drought and other diseases, palmyrah is a sturdy tree grown in the arid and partially arid zones with no aid of any fertiliser. Spread in an extent of 70,000 hectares in 11 districts, Sri Lanka claims around 11 million of palmyrah trees. “Out of the 11 districts, nine were war-torn regions during the past 30 years and as a result we lost nearly 4 million palmyrah trees hindering a lucrative national production and at present we are in the process of re-cultivating the tree and reviving the industry,” said Palmyrah Development Board Marketing Manager D G K Wahalathantri.
Watchdogs of palmyrah
Established in 1978 by a legislative enactment, Palmyrah Development Board presently comes under the purview of the Ministry of Traditional Industries and Small Enterprise Development. Among its imperative objectives, conservation of palmyrah as well as the promotion and production of palmyrah-related industries are noteworthy.
“In the North and Eastern regions of the country, a considerable percentage of the population depends on this tree with jaggery, thal hakuru, sookiri and kottei kilangu production being among their main sources of income,” said Wahalathantri.
Although considered a traditional crop in Sri Lanka, the economic value of palmyrah is immense. In addition to palmyrah pulp, syrup, cordials, mee raa, sookiri, jam, oils and cordials (panam paanam and palmta) a myriad variety of handicrafts are produced including baskets, trays, peduru, hats, wall hangings, rugs exhausting palmyrah fibre and leaves.
A delicious experience
Stepping into ‘Katpaham’ – the sales outlet of the Palmyrah Development Board in Colombo, I was awe struck by the variety of food and beverages conceived out of palmyrah as well as the exotic handicrafts.
Tasting thal pinatu, a special delicacy, complemented by a drink of Palmta – both ‘first timers’ for me, was undoubtedly a ‘delicious experience.’
Among the range of innovative products available at Katpaham is ‘Palm toothpaste’ and cordial.
“Apart from Katpaham centres found in several parts of the island, palm products are not freely available as a result of the war destroying the production capacity. In the post-war context, only the model farms in Kilinochchi area have been cleared for our operations and the rest in the North-East region are yet to be cleared for access.
The breakdown of the industry has taken its toll on the functioning of the Palmyrah Development Board as well,” Wahalathantri expressed his concerns adding that the National Crafts Council had pledged to render its assistance in launching several other potential marketing outlets in Colombo and its suburbs.
The regional centres affiliated to the Palmyrah Development Board renders its assistance to the palmyrah growers providing them with the necessary technical know-how and training programmes. According to Wahalathantri, Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Kalmunai areas are considered prime areas for a lucrative growth of the tree and the necessary assistance is provided by the regional centres operative in the areas. “Palm seeds are sown between October and December and nearly 70% of such seeds are assured to grow successfully. In 2009, nearly 2.2 million palmyrah seeds were sown,” explained Wahalathantri who believes that a lucrative palmyrah cultivation can be expected in future years in the country, the accelerating figures of palm production justifying it. The 1,800 kg of jaggery in 2009 had soared up to 4,000 kg last year, palmyrah pulp notching a similar rise in production from 8,000 litres in 2009 to 20,000 litres last year.
Palmyrah pulp has discovered a lucrative overseas market in countries such as the US, Canada, Germany and Australia.
The Palmyrah Development Board in collaboration with accredited private partnerships facilitates the export process of palm products including the pulp, jaggery and fibre. “There is a high demand for the fibre as well, which we currently cannot meet with. However, with the clearing of the model farms in the North and East regions, the Board hopes to supply to a wider foreign market,” said Wahalathantri.
For a palmyrah tree to reach maturity with a bearing of a fruit, it takes nearly 15 years and for eight years, apart from thal goba (tender leaves) popularly known as kottei kilangu no other part of the immature plant can be utilised, the reason why felling of palmyrah is made prohibited by the Gazzette Notification 790/9 of October 27, 1993. (This applies to the felling of Jack as well as del tree) “The lifespan of a tree is as high as 120 years, the reason why the destruction of palmyrah is considered a national crime,” elaborated Wahalathantri.
Revival of the Research Centre
Shedding light upon the re-establishment of the Palmyrah Research Centre in Kaithadi in Jaffna District, S Wijendran, Manager, Research and Development, Palmyrah Development Board cited, “The Research Centre which was housed in Kaithadi became a pile of rubble during the war and at present it’s defunct. The good news is that the Indian Government has pledged its support with a generous financial grant in re-establishing it which is a timely move.” With the objective of enhancing the quality of palmyrah products, The Palmyrah Development Board is presently engaged in several collaborative research ventures with some of the state universities, Industrial Development Board, Industrial Technology Institute and National Engineering Research Development Centre.
According to Wijendran several ambitious research projects including the manufacturing of palm vinegar and several other beverages hitherto unexplored are in pipeline. “Palmyrah industry was one of the worst affected national industries during the last three decades and the time has now dawned for the revival of it- life blood of thousands in the North and East regions of the island,” said Wijendran.
(Photo credit: Palmyrah Development Board) (Katpaham Pix: Rukshan Abeywansha)
Courtesy: The Nation