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Top toddy: Sri Lanka’s tree tapping trade reaches new heights | Global development

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The palmyra palm tree with its wide fan leaves is a distinctive and common sight across Jaffna, northern Sri Lanka, thriving in the arid conditions.

Kutty, who goes by only one name, is a “toddy tapper”. Climbing the palms with his clay pot, he collects sap from the flower heads at the top of the great trees, which can grow to more than 30 metres (90ft). The sap is fermented to make toddy, an alcoholic drink also known as palm wine.

He shaves the tips off the flowers, tying the pot’s rope handle in place to collect the fluid. It’s meticulous and risky work. Afterwards, he takes the precious juice to the collection centre, just like thousands of other toddy tappers. There are about 11 million palmyra or borassus trees dotting the landscape across the country, but despite its many uses, from making brooms to ice-cream, very few were being utilised – until recently.

With such a small market for toddy, co-operatives would cap the amount they bought and the traditional skills of the tappers were being lost, as the sap brought in little profit. These skills were especially neglected in the Jaffna peninsula during the long civil war, which raged between 1983 and 2009.

A Sri Lankan toddy tapper with his rope to climb the tall palms and clay pot to collect sap.
A Sri Lankan toddy tapper with his rope to climb the tall palms and clay pot to collect sap. Photograph: Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP/Getty

It didn’t help that toddy was seen as a poor man’s drink. The clay pots used to collect the sap were unhygienic, bottles in which the drink was sold were dirty, and the manufacturing equipment in factories was outdated.

Suganthan Shanmuganathan had fled his native Jaffna for Canada during the civil war but returned 25 years later in 2014 with his family. He had established a successful drinks business when he heard the Varany Palmyrah Arrack Co-operative was in danger of collapse, and he began to see the potential in a dying industry.

Nearly 4,000 people now work as toddy tappers after Suganthan Shanmuganathan stepped in to boost the industry.
Nearly 4,000 people now work as toddy tappers after Suganthan Shanmuganathan stepped in to boost the industry. Photograph: Khursheed Dinshaw

“I realised the difficulties faced by societies and tappers. I wished to positively change the living standards of toddy tappers, their families, especially young children, while uplifting this marginalised society,” says Shanmuganathan.

“I looked at the existent process and gave my suggestions based on my expertise of the manufacturing process I had learned in Canada to boost and uplift the palmyra industry.”

Within a few years, the industry has transformed. Today, about 4,000 people work as toddy tappers. Quality has drastically improved and manufacturing equipment has been upgraded.

“Our industry was going nowhere. We were only allowed to bring 30 litres a day by the co-operative,” says Kutty.

“This meant my monthly income was around 18,000 Sri Lankan rupees (£70). Shanmuganathan removed the limit on quantity but he insisted on quality. This ensured that only the best was brought in by the tappers. Our income increased to around 190,000 Sri Lankan rupees.

“Toddy tappers who were living a hand-to-mouth existence now have a comfortable life. This has changed many lives, not just for us and our children, but our extended families and our villages.”

Palm tree products are now exported to the UK, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Dubai. “I started with toddy, and within the last three years have expanded to about 80 different products. These include arrack [an alcoholic spirit], jaggery [unrefined sugar], palmyra root crisps, root powder, syrup, and flour,” says Shanmuganathan.

Toddy tapping was close to becoming a dying industry in Sri Lanka as demand for the sap dried up.
Toddy tapping was previously a dying industry in Sri Lanka, as demand for the sap dried up. Photograph: Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty

In the pandemic, the Palmyrah Research Institute and Alerics, a Sri Lankan ice-cream company, launched ice-cream made from the fruit pulp.

“I have over 40 years experience in the palmyra industry and was very sad to see it decline over the years. No one seemed to understand the value of the palmyra tree and its benefits. I was also saddened since all the research and knowledge I had acquired in my lifetime was going to waste,” says Thiyagarajah Panneerchelvam, head technician at the state-backed Palmyrah Development Board. He credits Shanmuganathan with reviving the industry and “also making sure that local knowledge and expertise does not disappear with my generation”.

Jekhan Aruliah, co-founder of a Jaffna management consultancy that works with Shanmuganathan, agrees.

“This has not been easy for him. He has had to change the work culture of the palmyra co-operatives, which have been stubbornly stagnant for decades. Palmyra is the iconic tree of the north, he is turning it into a pillar of northern economic success,” he says.

“While uplifting the lives of thousands of families, we are creating an industry which is environmentally friendly and aims for zero waste. We envisage that the growth in the palmyra industry will lead to growth in many other industries […] The ripple effect is huge.”

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Vulnerable Malians could ‘pay the price’ of heavy sanctions, warn aid groups | Global development

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More than a dozen aid organisations have called for humanitarian exemptions to heavy sanctions imposed on Mali after the military leadership postponed planned February elections.

The EU has announced support for the sanctions imposed earlier this month by the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), which include closing borders and a trade embargo.

But this week, 13 international groups working in Mali warned of devastating consequences for the population, a third of whom rely on aid.

Humanitarian access is hindered by the Malian interim authorities’ decision to reciprocate border closures with Ecowas member states, except Guinea.

Thousands of people demonstrated against the sanctions last week in the capital Bamako, carrying placards saying “down with Ecowas” and “down with France”.

The country is in the grip of the worst food insecurity in 10 years.

A joint letter signed by the NGOs, including the International Rescue Committee (IRC), Care and the Norwegian Refugee Council, said: “To continue their work effectively, humanitarian actors must have unfettered access for the transportation of life-saving goods including food and medicine, as well as guarantees that they can transfer funds into the country without violating the sanctions.”

Mali’s current insecurity dates back to early 2012 when northern separatists rebelled against the government. Islamist militants that initially allied with the separatists, including Ansar Dine, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, ultimately hijacked the rebellion.

France, the former colonial ruler, made a military intervention in 2013 on the government’s side against the militants. The UN has also deployed an estimated 18,000 peacekeeping staff, in what was called its most dangerous mission.

The Malian military, led by Col Assimi Goïta, has conducted two coups in two years and reneged on promises to hold new elections. The junta’s most recent power grab, in May 2021, was the fifth coup since Mali’s independence in 1960 and it has been unwilling to commit to transition to civilian rule, despite international pressures.

Postponement of elections has been blamed on Islamist insecurity, an impasse that has deepened with the arrival of private military contractors belonging to the Russian mercenary firm Wagner Group. European states have condemned Wagner’s presence, concerned it will enable the military to hold on to power.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said this month that EU sanctions on Mali were in part in response to the involvement of Russian contractors. France is withdrawing troops, but 14 other EU members, led by Sweden, had established a taskforce to replace them in a three-year mandate. As tensions intensified over the Wagner Group, Sweden said last week that it had decided to withdraw its troops.

France, which holds the rotating EU presidency, has been vociferous in its support of sanctions but Russia and China have blocked the UN security council’s move to follow suit.

Ecowas has frozen financial aid and Malian assets at the Central Bank of West African States.

Elena Vicario, director for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Mali, said: “Malians are already bearing the brunt of the humanitarian catastrophe, punctuated by horrifying attacks against civilians. Sanctions must not hold us back from delivering essential assistance in a country where drought, rising insecurity, and the economic impacts of Covid-19 are already pushing millions of Malians over the edge.”

Franck Vannetelle, the IRC’s country director in Mali, echoed Vicario, saying: “Despite more than a third of the country’s population being dependent on humanitarian aid, organisations working in Mali already face severe access constraints. It’s imperative that the international community keeps responding to people’s urgent needs, and that any new sanctions have concrete humanitarian exemptions. These must be monitored and implemented, or the most vulnerable people in Mali will pay the price.”

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Lawyers threaten action over new EU gas and nuclear rules

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Environmental lawyers are threatening to take legal action against the European Commission if gas is included in the new EU guidelines for sustainable energy investment.

The draft proposal, controversially released late on 31 December, would see certain investments in gas and nuclear included in the so-called EU taxonomy, under the category of “transitional economic activities”.

But a legal analysis carried out by ClientEarth found that such a move would clash with several EU laws — the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, the EU Climate Law and the Taxonomy Regulation itself — and international commitments under the 2015 Paris Agreement.

“Failing to take these legal obligations into account puts the commission at serious risk of legal challenge,” environmental lawyer Marta Toporek from ClientEarth warned on Friday (21 January).

The London-based NGO said that they are exploring all legal avenues, including an internal review request.

Under the Aarhus regulation, NGOs have the right to ask EU institutions to assess their own decisions — with a right to appeal before the Court of Justice of the European Union.

The commission must respond to such requests within 22 weeks.

“While it is a lengthy process, it is an important right for environmental NGOs, and in very limited cases individuals, to ensure that EU institutions and bodies comply with EU laws that are meant to protect the environment and human health,” ClientEarth told EUobserver.

The draft taxonomy has triggered discontent not only among environmentalists but also among some EU member states, MEPs and some financial institutions.

Spain, Austria, Denmark and Luxembourg united to reject the draft proposal, ahead of an informal meeting with EU environment ministers taking place on Friday (21 January) and Saturday — where EU countries can tell the commission what they think about including gas and nuclear into the EU taxonomy.

“This draft sends the wrong message to financial markets and seriously risks being rejected by investors. It jeopardises the purpose of the taxonomy to create a common language,” the group of four countries said in a statement earlier this week.

They argue that natural gas and nuclear power do not meet the legal and scientific requirements to be qualified as sustainable activities.

Vienna previously said it would sue the EU executive if it goes with its plans to include gas and nuclear in the EU taxonomy.

And the Dutch parliament said this week that it will not accept the inclusion of gas, because “‘green’ should really be green”, as Dutch Green MP Suzanne Kröger put it.

No impact assessment, no public consultation

Similarly, centre-right MEP Sirpa Pietikäinen and Green MEP Bas Eickhout, who lead the European Parliament’s work on this file, have said that the draft proposal fails to live up to the co-legislators expectations.

They see the selection criteria used for gas power plants, co-generation and district hearing as being in breach of the “principle of technological neutrality”.

Scientists from the EU Commission expert group concluded that for gas power plants a threshold of 100g CO2e/kWh of electricity should be applied to be compatible with a 1.5°C pathway under the Paris Agreement.

But under the draft proposal, instead, gas power plants would be taxonomy-compliant if their emissions are lower than 270g CO2e/kWh of electricity.

“We see no legal ground for the commission to create an exemption to this principle of technological neutrality,” the two MEPs said in a letter, regretting the lack of an impact assessment.

Earlier this week, MEPs Irene Tinagli and Pascal Canfin, chairs of the parliament committees for economy and environment, also deplored the lack of public consultation “in the light of the controversial nature of the subject”.

Meanwhile, civil society organisations and academia have warned the commission that the EU taxonomy, as it stands, would damage Europe’s reputation and ambitions to climate leadership.

Last year was marked by “a string of intense political rows, backroom deals and manoeuvring over how to bypass scientific evidence and classify fossil gas and nuclear energy as sustainable,” said Tsvetelina Kuzmanova from NGO E3G.

Experts had until Friday to provide feedback on the EU taxonomy. The EU executive will now analyse their contributions and it is expected to formally adopt the proposal before the end of the month.

A majority of EU countries, or the European Parliament, could still object and revoke the decision, after four months of scrutiny.

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Taliban launch raids on homes of Afghan women’s rights activists | Women’s rights and gender equality

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Taliban gunmen have raided the homes of women’s rights activists in Kabul, beating and arresting female campaigners in a string of actions apparently triggered by recent demonstrations.

Tamana Zaryabi Paryani and Parawana Ibrahimkhel, who participated in a series of protests held in Kabul over the last few months, were seized on Wednesday night by armed men claiming to be from the Taliban intelligence department.

Shortly before Paryani and her sisters were detained, footage was posted on social media showing her screaming for help, saying the Taliban were banging on her door.

“Help, please, the Taliban have come to our home … Only my sisters are home,” she says in the clip.

Associated Press footage from the scene on Thursday showed the apartment’s dented metal front door sitting slightly ajar. A witness said the armed men went up to Paryani’s third-floor apartment and began banging on the front door ordering her to open it.

The spokesman for the Taliban-appointed police in Kabul, Gen Mobin Khan, tweeted that Paryani’s social video post was a manufactured drama. A spokesman for the Taliban intelligence, Khalid Hamraz, would neither confirm nor deny the arrest.

He tweeted that “insulting the religious and national values of the Afghan people is not tolerated any more”, a reference to Sunday’s rally during which the protesters appeared to burn a white burqa, the head-to-toe garment that only leaves a mesh opening for the eyes.

Hamraz accused rights activists of maligning Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers and their security forces to gain asylum in the west.

Similar raids were reported across homes of female protesters in Kabul. In another case, an Afghan protester whose name has been concealed to protect her, said she was physically assaulted and injured. She told the Guardian that the Taliban visited her house and “attacked” and “severely beat” her. Her whereabouts are now unknown.

“The Taliban had been patrolling near our homes since [Wednesday] afternoon. I talked to Tamana in the evening and then around 9pm I saw the video of her asking for help. We tried calling her from our burner phones, but her phone was switched off,” said Wahida Amiri, 33-year-old librarian and a fellow demonstrator, who is also on the run. “When we realised that they were raiding our homes one by one, the rest of us decided to go into hiding,” she added.

Since sweeping to power in mid-August, the Taliban have imposed widespread restrictions, many of them against women. They have been banned from many jobs outside the health and education field, their access to education has been restricted beyond sixth grade and they have been ordered to wear the hijab. The Taliban have, however, stopped short of imposing the burqa, which was compulsory when they ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s.

At Sunday’s demonstration, women carried placards demanding equal rights and shouted: “Justice!” They said they could be forced to wear the hijab. Organisers of the demonstration said Paryani attended the protest, which was dispersed after the Taliban fired pepper spray at the crowd.

Paryani belongs to a rights group called Seekers of Justice, which has organised several demonstrations in Kabul, including Sunday’s. Members have not spoken publicly of Paryani’s arrest but have been sharing the video of her.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch said that since taking over, the Taliban “have rolled back the rights of women and girls, including blocking access to education and employment for many”.

“Women’s rights activists have staged a series of protests; the Taliban have responded by banning unauthorized protests,” HRW said in a statement after Sunday’s protest.

The Taliban have increasingly targeted Afghanistan’s rights groups, and local and international journalists covering demonstrations have often been detained and sometimes beaten.

“It is obvious the Taliban are intensifying their attacks on the civic space, and more specifically on women who are pioneers of the civic space,” said Shaharzad Akbar, chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.

“For over a month, we have seen the Taliban stifling dissent and intensifying their attacks on protesters across Afghanistan,” added Akbar. “Earlier we heard reports of protesters in Mazar being detained. There were also allegation of them being tortured, assaulted and harassed while in detention.”

Heather Barr, associate director of the women’s division at Human Rights Watch, said the Taliban’s reaction was a sign of fear. “It might seem hard to understand why the Taliban would have such a violent reaction to 25 women standing on the sidewalk, protesting peacefully. But their fears make sense when you see how powerful and brave these women are, to be stepping out again and again even in the face of escalating violence by the Taliban,” she said.

She urged the international community to step up in support of Afghan women. “The Taliban seem to be struggling on how to respond to this, and seem to have decided now that increased brutality is the answer, and that is a very frightening moment. The international community has to stand by these women.”

Associated Press contributed reporting

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