WADDUWA, Sri Lanka, Nov 12, 2012 (AFP) - Clambering between high trees carrying a knife in the search for sap to brew alcoholic drinks is a young man's game -- and Sri Lanka's ageing toddy tappers say the craft is dying.
In a typical day, a skilled tapper collects the milky white sap from 75 to 100 palms that are linked by a network of ropes that he walks along, just one slip away from falling onto the hard ground far below.
The job requires toughness and balance, and was passed down through the generations providing a basic living through harvesting coconut palms for "toddy" to make a local alcoholic brew, coconut syrup or exotic palm sugar.
Gamini Gunatillake, 38, first scampered up the 60-foot (18-metre) trees when he was just 14-years-old and is among the youngest toddy tappers in southern Sri Lanka.
He learnt the ropes from his father and is proud to have kept up an old family tradition, but he believes that he will be the end of the line.
His three children, aged between 20 and nine, all dismiss the idea of following their father and they hope to become office workers instead.
"There will be no one in my family to take my place after I am gone," Gunatillake told AFP at a coconut grove in the coastal town of Wadduwa, south of Colombo, where a distillery turns toddy into arrack.
He said the craft faces extinction as any newcomers are put off by low wages, hard work and the high risk.
"There are no youngsters here who want to train for this job," he said soon after climbing barefoot down from a palm. "A colleague of mine fell to his death recently in the adjoining town. No one has replaced him."
At the privately-owned coconut grove in Wadduwa, Gunatillake moves swiftly from tree to tree carrying two knives, a tamarind wood mallet and a gourd to collect the sap -- all essential tools of the trade weighing about 25 kilogrammes (55 pounds).
The sap-filled gourd is gently sent down using a vertical rope to a helper on the ground who empties it into a vat made out of mango wood, and each tapper must collect 100 litres daily to make 750 rupees ($5.70).
He shaves a bit off the coconut flower each day, and gently taps it with the wood mallet to encourage the flow of sap which is collected into the clay gourd and harvested the next morning.
Poor pay, occupational hazards
Toddy tappers often fall while working during monsoon rains or at times when there are strong winds, and serious or even fatal injuries are common.
Lal Perera, 56, fell from a tree top in 1992 injuring his spine and breaking a leg in three places, leaving him bed-bound for 10 months -- but then he returned to work.
"I can't do any other job, so I am hanging onto this," Perera said, who also learned the trade from his father. "I know the risk, but this is the work I will do till I die."
The owner of the coconut plantation, Manjula Seneviratne, 37, inherited the property where toddy tapping had been a family business for over a century.
"I don't know for how long I can continue this because it is becoming very difficult to find toddy tappers," he told AFP. "My grandfather had 35 toddy tappers in his employ, but I have only seven.
Local estimates suggest that the number of tappers in Sri Lanka has dwindled to less than 7,000 compared to about 50,000 tappers four decades ago.
Seneviratne sells the toddy to a nearby distillery and pays one third of the sale proceeds to his workers.
One of his employees, Ranasinghe Perera, 54, says poor pay and occupational hazards discourage rookies and he admits he nearly came crashing down recently when stung by wasps.
"The payment is not enough for the hard labour we put in and the risks we take," Perera said.
Sri Lanka's main Coconut Research Institute (CRI) has tried to formalise training toddy tappers and help secure the fading craft, but its efforts soon fizzled out.
"There is a social stigma attached to climbing trees (for a living). Then there is the risk factor," said Henry Nimal, head of CRI Technology Transfer unit.
"The institute was started in the 1970s as the authorities saw the potential for employment but unfortunately, people are increasingly unlikely to sign up."
A bottle of coconut arrack containing about 35 percent alcohol by volume retails for about 650 rupees ($5), almost the daily wage of an average worker.
However illegal "hooch" versions made from artificial imported toddy are becoming more common, providing another threat to the tappers.
Plantation owners and distillers say the imported synthetic substitutes that are used are illegal, untaxed and dangerous, and that the government needs to crack down.
"The end result... will be that the nation's health will fall victim, as the death of consumers is imminent if such illegal practice continues," distilleries chief Harry Jayawardena said in his latest company report.