Palmyrah trees are slowly disappearing from the landscape of Thiruvananthapuram and Palakkad districts, the only districts where they grow in numbers in Kerala. Though the State Palmyrah Products Development and Workers Welfare Corporation make efforts to revive Palmyrah cultivation and products, strong economic factors are pushing the palms towards near extinction in Kerala.
Rubber, which gives good returns from the sixth year, is replacing the Palmyrah trees in Thiruvananthapuram district. (The palms need about 15 years to start yielding.) The palms are also dwindling in numbers in the nearby districts of Tamil Nadu where coconut and other crops are being preferred by the farmers. In Palakkad also, changing land use pushes out the Palmyrah. It is estimated that the number of palmyrah trees in the State would have come down by more than 60 per cent over the past two decades.
Though Palmyrah’s fruits and leaves have multiple uses, it fail to compete with other crops. However, the array of products from Palmyrah would amaze many. Edible items that could be made from its fruit include jaggery, colas, sugar, syrup, candy, confectionaries and sherbath. Many of these have medicinal properties. Even the root of germinating fruit is edible. Toddy is made from the sugary sap of its young inflorescence. Leaves and fibre are used for making a variety of products such as brushes, mats, hats and fans. The timber is also valuable and durable.
Cultivators of the palms and palm climbers are in a dilemma. Trees are usually leased out for harvesting of toddy and fruits, and the rents are as low as Rs. 20 a tree. The climbers would get Rs. 225 to Rs. 300 a day. However, earnings are not steady and enough to eke out a living. Besides, only members of the Nadar community go for tree climbing, and those taking up the job are coming down. Consequently,there is shortage of climbers. The Corporation is now giving training to young men. But, the job is tedious and that keeps many men out.
John Raj, who is nostalgic about palm cultivation and making of its products, said that the problems in harvesting could be partly addressed by switching to shorter varieties of palms. The palms in Tamil Nadu are shorter. Cultivation could be promoted on road sides, government lands and purambokes. The Agriculture Department should take the initiative in promoting cultivation.
Managing Director of the Corporation P. Donbosko said that Corporation, headquartered at Neyyattinkara in Thiruvananthapuram district, was already taking steps to plant the palms in public places and schools. It had formed popular committees at Palakkad and Neyyattinkara to promote cultivation. It was also implementing welfare schemes for palm climbers and providing them insurance coverage for a small contribution. Besides, the Corporation was reviving its fibre processing unit at Palakkad which employed about 80 persons. The unit used to export fibre. In addition, the company was making soft drinks, squash, jaggery and jam at its unit near Neyyattinkara. Steps were being made to revive production of palm syrup and introduce new items such as ice cream.
The Managing Director said that the Corporation was procuring some of its raw material from Tamil Nadu as enough supply was not available from within the State. To increase sales of its products, it was planning to open outlets in all taluks. It had also sought government clearance for inclusion of jaggery in the meal for pupils under the School Noon Meal Scheme.