By Aung Kyaw Thant
Past picturesque scene of toddy-palm trees
Up to about two decades ago, the Anya region located in central Myanmar and toddy-palm plantations were inseparable. Hundreds of trees thrived in the Anya area, giving proper livelihoods to the local people. In reality, the Anya area was a dry zone of the nation but it did not become a desert due to the defiance of toddy-palm trees against the climatic conditions. Thanks to the trees, the Anya area was home to local people called Anyathians.
At that time, travellers could enjoy the scenic beauties of dark green toddy palm plantations. Although the hillocks of the Anya area were barren but tall toddy-palm plantations could conserve and adjust the climatic conditions to be able to drop some volume of rainfalls on a yearly basis. Whenever travellers made trips along the Yangon-Mandalay railway or Mandalay-Myitkyina railway, they could not turn a blind eye to fascinating picturesque views of toddy-palm trees along both sides of the railways. In successive eras, artistes created their artistic works depicting the beauties of the plantations with the huts of toddy farmers in the background. Such kinds of photos and paintings on panoramic views of toddy-palm plantations showed off the nature of Myanmar’s rural people in the past.
Inseparable scenes of Anya’s area and toddy-palm trees
Once, the Anya area of central Myanmar was filled with tall toddy-palm plantations. Now, it is a modern story for new generations. It may be a story told to children before going to bed. Life of toddy farmers and jaggery production livelihoods were left in the past. Myanmar’s forefathers grew toddy-palm trees in their croplands and farmlands. Each toddy tree needs to take many decades to be a young one. Such plants were grown hundreds of years ago. But these can give food and income to local people at present. The forefathers grew the trees and current generations enjoy the fruits of growing the trees. So, should the current generation grow further plantations? Should they need to be dutiful for posterity? They have been consuming the benefits from the plantations for many years. Should they also not leave similar benefits for new generations?
Since cultivation, the saplings of trees benefit the local people. The sprouts of toddy trees give toddy-palm nuts as food to the local people. At a time when the trees are in gradual growth, local people can get leaves of the trees to be used in roofing and some people in rural areas use them on the walls of houses. The base of the toddy-palm branches can be used as household utensils. Buds of the leaves can be used as toys for children and traditional boxes. Moreover, products from the tree can be used in making mats which are suitable for the climatic conditions in all areas. An adult tree gives toddy sap, toddy fruits to be used in Myanmar’s traditional snacks and jute for making ropes. All parts of the tree are useful for the people.
Toddy sap as rural drink
Sweet and bitter toddy saps can be drunk as soft drinks. Rural lads joyfully drink toddy sap in Myanmar traditions. The adult tree can give food and utensils to people for many years. So, rural people dub the trees as offspring in their families. The collection of toddy sap is a primary livelihood for local people to produce jaggery. At a time when a boy became an adult, he could not choose options for livelihood. He had to do the cultivation of crops and climb the trees for collecting toddy sap.
Toddy-palm trees solve kitchen problems
But, toddy sap and jaggery could not fetch good prices. Such least income was used in nurturing the generations of rural people in successive eras. They were needy but they could not starve. It was a real story. Those rural people spent their day time with exhaustion in working toddy-palm farms but they could not uplift their living standard. However, they did not discard their livelihoods for their families, their industries and their nation. They solved the family problems with incomes obtained from toddy-palm plantations. They created household utensils made of parts of trees. The whole hut could be built of toddy parts. Chairs, tables, cups, mats, toys and foods could be made of toddy-palm products. These products showed the nature of Myanmar and Anyathians.
Past time had gone with the wind. People from the Anya area leave abroad to seek jobs which may be better than the toddy-palm businesses they seemed. These plantations are left alone without plant climbers and jaggery makers. It is true that income from toddy-palm farms cannot be compared with that of other jobs abroad. Those working abroad may suffer from homesickness but they miss the chance to return home immediately. They also miss the chance to meet their friends. Really, the advantages of working at home are the great reward for workers.
Shortages of toddy-palm farmers
Practically, the thick toddy palm plantations in the Anya area do not have toddy farmers. These farms also face gradual degradation. There remain a few toddy farmers for collection of toddy sap and making jaggery. The current condition is not purposed for the production of jaggery on a commercial scale because of shortages of firewood. Hillocks become barren. The trees to be used as firewood cannot be found around the toddy-palm plantations. As the government prohibits the extraction of firewood from various kinds of forests, local people are difficult to produce jaggery. Now is the start of an era to regrow the trees so as to green the Anya region in cooperation with the government. So, the government cannot allow cutting trees to extract firewood for domestic use as well as for use of small-scale industries. On the other hand, local toddy farmers cannot afford to use electricity in making jaggery as power cables have not been installed in many parts of the Anya area yet.
Barren hills cannot conserve the environment. As such, toddy-palm plantation owners sold their plants. Buyers logged the plants. The Anya area is gradually cleared by cutting the toddy trees. Consequently, the environmental impacts become a burden on local people. Barriers to shortages of labour for climbing toddy-palm trees to collect sap, jaggery makers, transport facilities, and shortages of water and electricity supply are root causes of fading out of the role of toddy-palm plantations and their businesses.
Events leading to desertification
The areas without toddy-palm trees gradually become desertification. Plant owners earned money by selling the toddy plants but later they missed sources of earning income, especially from toddy plantations. Businesspersons who bought toddy trees extended their business areas into the toddy-palm plantations. Local people face a lack of farms and plantations as well as lose livelihoods. Construction projects and business projects invade the past toddy plantation areas. Waste of materials discarded from the projects and the lack of plantations degrade the environment of Anya areas.
Good news: green light for toddy-palm business
An item of good news came out recently. A plan is underway to hold a workshop on toddy products in Mandalay in the second or third week of December for the first time, according to the Mandalay Region Chambers of Commerce and Industry. The workshop is slated to be held at the office of MRCCI. It is expected that officials from MRCCI, toddy product experts, toddy farmers, toddy product cooperative societies and businesspersons would take part in the discussions of the workshop.
A toddy-palm plantation namely Crown Prince’s toddy-palm farm is located in Mandalay Region. Although manufacturing products from toddy-palm trees is a traditional livelihood in upper Myanmar, there are just a few numbers of toddy farmers. It is very important. The workshop will focus on such kinds of topics. It will seek the best solution for the improvement of the market for toddy-palm products, especially ensuring the firm market share of toddy sap and jaggery for the remaining livelihoods of toddy farmers and toddy trees alive.
The workshop will last for two days when participants would read research papers on how to manage toddy-palm plantations in the Anya area, how to grasp the market share for toddy products, how to arrange life of local people who lose their livelihoods and plantations and how to provide market shares for the products, production techniques and exportation of toddy products. Whatever it may be, the workshop will contribute to the livelihoods of local toddy-palm farmers anyhow.
Save life of toddy-palm farmers and toddy-palm trees
As such, it is necessary to save toddy-palm trees and protect them for their long-term existence. As part of efforts for providing assistance, local authorities should arrange and seek the market for the toddy products. If not, it is necessary to create a market for these products. Efforts must be made for the revitalization of the toddy-palm product industries. If necessary, the trees must be grown on their original lands so as to green the regions and conserve the natural environment.
One of the root causes for losing the toddy-palm trees is a shortage of modern techniques to operate the manufacturing process of toddy-palm trees. As such, relevant authorities and officials need to modernize the production process of toddy products. Modern techniques and machinery need to be used in the production of toddy sap. Climbing the toddy-palm trees is very dangerous. The climbers need to have wonderful skills to do so. Hence, using modern machinery will solve the problem of toddy sap being free from the danger of worksites and to overcome barriers to producing jaggery.
Great expectations of local people
Water supply and electrification will ease the difficulties in jaggery production. The government and donors sponsored sinking tube wells and water tanks and built earthen lakes to restore water to be supplied to local people. But, the majority of local people still face shortages of water every summer. The government is striving for the installation of power cables and facilitating the Anya region with household solar panels for the consumption of electricity. But, most of the local people are still consuming limited electrification. When the government strives for a supply of water and electricity to the Anya region, toddy palm plantations are gradually degraded. As such, it is necessary to solve the problems of how to stop such kind of degradation of the plantations and how to uplift the living standard of the people. Such a problem is not concerned with just a government. All parties such as the government, the businesspersons and the local people are responsible for seeking the best solution for the problem.
If necessary, experts related to the agricultural research profession need to produce the fast-growth toddy palm species to be distributed to the local farmers. Industrialists should create machinery suitable for the collection of toddy saps without the need to climb the trees to be free from danger. So also, it is necessary to invent machinery to produce value-added toddy-palm products. Authorities concerned need to seek the market for toddy-palm products at home and abroad. Systematic packaging techniques for the products must be shared with local producers.
Using electricity in jaggery production will prevent deforestation due to minimizing the use of firewood. While greening the areas, authorities can solve the fuel requirements of jaggery production. Gradually, the Anya region will be filled with forests, and the regrown toddy plantations will thrive year after year. In consequence, local people including the toddy-palm farmers will have higher living standards with increased incomes from suitable agriculture and livestock farms based on the development of the socioeconomy. Authorities need to encourage local businesses to boom micro, small and medium-scale enterprises related to toddy-palm products. That is why arrangements should be made for the establishment of systematic toddy palm plantations in the Anya area and the improvement of modern jaggery production industries based on the expertise of experts and the efforts of local people.