Cambodia has millions of sugar palms dotting the countryside and the multi-purpose tree is a national icon. Another lesser-known type of palm tree – the talipot palm – is not as common in Cambodia and has had less obvious uses traditionally for agriculture or industry.
Now, a community enterprise has started selling long-lasting household products made from its wood.
With a majestic inflorescence that has the largest flowering in the world, the talipot palm – known as the traing in Khmer – can be seen growing abundantly in Chhaeb district of Preah Vihear province in northern Cambodia.
The community – located in the nature reserve area of Chhaeb district – has learned about the benefits of these trees and have found creative uses for them by making them into kitchen or dining utensils and home decor products.
This creative use of the talipot palms has been earning families in Chhaeb district extra income beyond what they earn through their primary occupations as farmers.
Seeing a great deal of potential in both the talipot palm and the craft skills of the people living in the Chhaeb district area, the Non-Timber Forest Products Exchange Programme of Cambodia (NTFP-EP) began discussions with the community a few years ago about starting a social enterprise using the talipot palm as a raw material.
“We started the process in 2017 and then in 2018 we officially became structured as an enterprise. Now we have five teams and each team has from five to ten or more members in their group,” NTFP-EP’s community enterprise development officer, Men Sokheng, tells The Post.
Team members are aged anywhere from 35 to 70 years old, though most of them are over the age of 50.
“Frankly speaking, we are not targeting any particular age group. It just happened to be the case that this skill is much more common among the elders. Since they are too old to migrate elsewhere for employment, this has become their work aside from farming. The other reason is that not many people in the younger generations have learned this skill yet,” Sokheng says.
Sokheng says the craftsmen have traditionally used the talipot palm to make a small number of household items for their own personal use.
Now, with the assistance of her organisation, they have the opportunity to manufacture these items to sell them for a profit.
Sokheng says that their organisation has been helping the locals in Chhaeb district develop their skills in a number of ways.
For example, the NGO has created a formal entity for them to work through that is recognised by the authorities with a structure that includes membership and committees to make decisions.
He says that they have provided training courses on entrepreneurship and leadership to their members as well as helping the members to manage their money.
And, importantly, the NGO has introduced new techniques to the villagers for the processing of talipot palms to turn them into more valuable products.
“There are three types of talipot palm but only two of these types are used by the villagers. One is known as the “buffalo’s horn” palm and the other is known as the “chicken’s blood” palm,” says Sokheng.
He says the villagers have learned a lot about the production of different materials and about techniques for harvesting from talipot palms in protected areas without affecting the growth or sustainability of the plant.
“For any given plant, only one or two branches can be harvested and the tree should be at least 30 years old. That way, no harm is done to the area’s natural resources – this is totally sustainable,” Sokheng says.
Customers for the talipot palm products are mostly villagers, restaurants and furniture stores.
Additionally, Sokheng’s NGO has connected the district’s artisans to the department of agriculture’s marketplace which runs only on Fridays and Saturdays.
“We have mostly been making kitchen utensils, including chopsticks, forks, spoons, scoops, ladles, spatulas and swords as a decorative item. The cost is between 3,000 riel and 15,000 riel,” says the 33-year-old community development officer.
The weekend market is intended to be used for the sale of any kind of community-made products including local handmade products and foods and farmer’s vegetables, meats and other produce.
However, Covid restrictions have temporarily closed the market, so products are only being sold online at the moment.
Sokheng explains some of the benefits of talipot palm products:
“These products are both natural and organic. They are durable and will last for a long time and the patina on them actually becomes smoother with use. Unlike plastic utensils, they will not melt. And unlike metal utensils, they do not heat up rapidly and burn your hands,” Sokheng explains.
Sokheng says the enterprise is still striving to improve operations each day and one concern they have is that many producers are senior citizens. If this trend continues, these traditional artisan or craftsman skills may not be handed down to the next generation.
“We want to make sure we are improving the living standards of people in remote areas and preserving their traditional occupations or craft skills.
“Our social enterprise also contributes to the protection of forest resources – not just talipot palms – but all of the forest, because 5 per cent of the annual profits of the artisans will be given to the forest communities that support the forest patrols,” Sokheng says.
Sokheng detailed the organisation’s future plans for artisans, saying that the organisation wants to expand production and strengthen the community workers’ capacity in relation to market knowledge – and especially entrepreneurship – so that they know how to cooperate with one another to do business successfully.
“We do not expect the organisation to be managing them forever. We want to see if we can end the project and then have the community stand on its own – using the knowledge we gave them to still be able to do business and earn money,” Sokheng says.
In terms of challenges his organisation and their artisans face, Sokheng points to the anarchic behaviour of the loggers who continue clearing protected land for selfish profits, slowly but surely pushing both the forests and the talipot palms within them ever closer to extinction.
“We urge the younger generations to participate [in environmental work]. Because the older generations are weak, their eyes are blurry and they can’t see well. And they are not moving fast enough to solve these problems or even to meet the demands of the market, which clearly desires more responsible and sustainable goods,” Sokheng says.
For more information, Traing Processing Group can be contacted via their Facebook page @TraingProcessing.