Urbanization Threatens Palm Wine Tapping

Local palm wine tappers, in the Western Area Rural District, are having a fist fight with authorities over the cutting down of palm trees. Land selling is now a booming business in the Western Area Rural District, owing to the rapid expansion of urbanization in Waterloo, Four Mile, Makandoh, Magbanpoor and other communities.

The demand for housing has accelerated, and house rent has hiked unimaginably in the cities, but mainly in the capital, Freetown. The business of selling lands has, over the years, brought more fortune and recognition of status to custodians in the Western Area Rural District.

Senior authorities and custodians of community lands, especially in Koya Chiefdom, are ordering the cutting down of palm trees because most lands are now being sold to other people.

“We are not happy. Quite recently, the councilor (Jilo) brought some gangs to destroy my rubbers. They were like beasts,” complained Mohamed Koroma, a palm wine tapper.

This exercise has affected the lives of palm wine tappers like Koroma who has taken more than 15 years in the trade.

Koroma left Bumbuna Town in Tonkolili district and moved to Nyangba Town around Waterloo, to continue his palm tapping business. Palm wine tapping is commonly associated with the Limba ethic group in Sierra Leone. The Limbas are said to be the third largest ethnic group in Sierra Leone.

They represent 8.4% of Sierra Leone’s population, which is now about 7 million, according to Wikipedia site, an electronic information resource base. They are dominantly found in the Northern Province, in districts like Bombali, Kambia and Koinadugu.

Limbas are predominately rice farmers, palm wine brewers and stone carvers. Historically, they were said to have been pushed into the mountains by the Susu tribe.

Some historians believe that the Limbas used to live at the Wara Wara Mountains and were probably the first rulers of the territory. Even today, the Limbas reside in mountainous or hideout places to avoid public discomfort and to easily get access to palm trees for tapping palm wine.

Local palm wine consumption is very high in Sierra Leone. The palm wine, which is locally known as ‘poyo,’ is a white liquid extracted from palm trees. It is a fermented beverage, which is produced from various species of palm trees.

The tree trunk, Koroma informed, must first be partly cleaned up with the use of local implements like axe, chisel and ‘gbosa tool’. The cleaning process is locally called ‘gbosa’ by the Limbas.

The ‘gbosa’ tool is used to dig up the holes to allow the liquid to pass through a pipe into a gallon. But this method causes damage to the tree trunk, which often dies after several piercing.

It also results to infertility of the tree to produce palm oil, which is one of the country’s major export commodities.

The local palm trees grow best in temperatures from 25-20c and with 1500 mm of annual precipitation.

The liquid is collected by the palm wine tappers, using a gallon which is fastened onto the tree trunk. The liquid is usually harvested after the palm tree has taken 3-4 years old.

One tree trunk could produce about six or eight gallons of liquid depending on the richness of the tree, Koroma explained. However, even to get a gallon of palm wine, Koroma testifies, has become difficult for him these days. He shares the blame to the massive felling of trees by authorities.

“I am a caretaker at this land of seven hectares, but I don’t get paid for securing it. It doesn’t bother me much, but the palm tree cutting is my biggest worry,” he told Nightwatch.

Palm wine tapping produces an appreciable income to male tappers, women, middle agents and retail vendors. An estimated 90% of palm wine consumers are males, whereas kiosk vendors are mostly females, according to agris.fao.org.

Most palm wine tappers largely depend on the trade as their only source of income. But their hope of survival is apparently being blighted by the chopping down of tree trunks to give room for housing and other building construction undertaken by mainly private individuals.

Koroma alleges that the councilor had told them that he didn’t want to see any palm trees.

“My jerry can, which contains palm wine (poyo), was destroyed by his gangs. He sent his thugs to cut down all my rubbers,” he complained.

Authorities have not implemented any project to replace palm wine tapping. But Koroma alleges that their councilor had promised to help them with rice for swamp and dry land farming. But such promises have fallen on deaf ears ever since.

“He doesn’t help us since we voted him. If he can just help us with the swamp or dry land farm rice, he had promised us, it will be better,” he complained.

Efforts to get comments from Councilor Jilo proved unsuccessful despite several calls being made. The councilor covers Nyangba Town where Koroma lives with his family.

Koroma narrated a sharp difference in the prices of palm wine between the past and present generation, which, to him, doesn’t make any difference.

“During late President Momoh’s reign, in the late 90s, while I was in Bo, a gallon of palm wine is sold at 3 Leones. And I used to give Le500 for house feeding,” he said.

Despite this, there has been a steady increase in the price of palm wine or poyo. The profit accrued from the commodity is not worth mentioning, as he has to meet abundant family and housing demands.

“Now we sell one jerry can at Le10,000, but all that money goes to house feeding. I give Le25,000 per day for cooking,” he explained. A father of eight has got a huge burden to carry, especially meeting his children’s school running cost.

Quite recently, Koroma explains, he was asked to pay Le2 million as school charges (which is equivalent to US $200). His facial rueful expression and short tone voice clearly show his disappointment with authorities’ brutal attacks on the palm trees, where their survival depends and lack of hope for his children’s future.

“I never went to school because my parents never made me to attend. So, I don’t want my children to become dropouts because they’re my only hope now,” he told Nightwatch.

Even the sap, which he pegs his hope, hasn’t much profit where it is produced.

Koroma, like other tappers, works with middle agent buyers who come to collect some quantities of palm wine rubbers to be sold elsewhere. The buyers will later bring him the money after three days of selling.

“We give them to sell on our behalf,” he said.

Payment is often done on a commission basis, when a customer stands to get a full jerry can after any trip of sales made.

But customers, Koroma says, have ceased to come and do business with him, because he could no longer produce huge quantities of palm wine rubbers.

This, he says, is mainly due to the few palm trees left to drill or tap, and the sporadic attacks by thugs who destroy their rubbers. Despite these challenges, he also has to deal with his poor health condition, which means that his wife will have to take up the responsibility of feeding the home.

“I usually experience stomach ache, which lasts for months. I only thank my wife who is an agriculturist. She sells the produce to feed the home while I was seriously sick,” he said.

The ban on palm wine tapping has left many people jobless, such as tappers, kiosk vendors and middle agent buyers due to the increasing purchase of land by private individuals and the rapid nature of housing and other building construction work taking place within the Western Area Rural District.

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