The leaves of the talipot palm – known by its botanical name Corypha umbraculifera and as traing in Khmer – have long been used by the Cambodian people to make crossbows, fishing tools and traps.
In recent years, villagers in Preah Vihear have been employing the thick midribs of the leaves to create useful implements like chopsticks, spoons, and even ceremonial weapons. This adaptability demonstrates their close relationship with the natural resources that surround them.
Many families in the province’s Sangke village and commune in Chheb district work together to harvest the useful midribs from the tree. One man pulls out the mid section of the leave while others stand ready with knives to split it.
Meas Hoeu, 64, a carpenter and also head of the community, told The Post he and about 30 families began using the leaves in 2018.
They have produced chopsticks, spoons, forks, spatulas, swords and spears, but owing to a wide variation in the size of the raw materials, were unable to produce standard sized products. This made it difficult to find markets for their goods, he said.
In 2019, the NGO Non-Timber Forest Products Exchange Programme (NTFP-EP) began training the craftsmen to adapt common standards. This standardisation led Hoeu’s team to form an enterprise called the Traing Tree Making Community.
After cooperating with the NGO for one year, the enterprise began to develop rapidly. Their products are now not only popular in Preah Vihear, but also in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.
“Before the NTFP-EP trained us, we just followed our old habits, without adapting any common standards. Each item was a different size to the others of its kind, and we could only sell them in small amounts. Since they taught us to innovate, we have grown exponentially, in terms of both production and product design,” he said.
According to Hoeu, after the NTFP-EP had completed the project, USAID came on board to help the community. Earlier this year, they taught them how to collect non-timber forest products in a sustainable way. This allows the craftsmen to harvest the raw materials they need, without causing any degradation to the plants. At the same time, USAID also helped them find markets for their products as well teach them how to manufacture to scale, and introduce quality standards.
Hoeu said his community brought their hand-made products to an exhibition in Siem Reap this year. They found great success, selling out of all of their goods. Later on, they found similar success at a Phnom Penh craft fair.
He said the trunk of the plant cannot be used to make anything, but the midribs of the leaf are strong and they can be crafted into many different materials. The midrib of a talipot palm leave is about 5m long, enough to make 10 pairs of chopsticks or many other items, including ceremonial swords.
Hoeu said the swords are often purchased by superstitious people to ward off evil spirits from their homes.
“About 70 per cent of our products are sold to Phnom Penh, where I have more dealers wanting to stock our goods. We earn from 10 to 15 million riel per year from the enterprise, but we have to divide the profit among all of the people involved in their manufacture. In terms of revenue, it is not much, but it supplements our income from farming. There is competition in the market from other hand-crafted goods, so we have to make sure we maintain high standards,” he said.
He said that part of the revenue went to the community forestry officials who patrolled the community forest where they collected their raw materials, in Chheb district.
He said the forest is just over 1km from Sangke village, so it was only a short journey by truck to collect them.
“For the future of the enterprise, I plan to teach the youngest members of the community to take care of the trees and plant more, as they are very useful,” he added.
A young woman from Phnom Penh who deals in their products spoke to The Post, on condition of anonymity. She said Hoeu’s products were becoming very popular in Phnom Penh.
“A lot of my customers now know the kitchen utensils he makes. Whenever we attend an exhibition, we sell out, because people can see the quality and really appreciate the value of something which is hand-made from all-natural materials,” she said.
Sangke village chief Sat Chim said he was pleased to see that the things his community produced were being recognised in the market.
“The villagers work at home or as a group, and have a sales team. The villagers who produce fewer products earn a smaller share of the enterprises earnings, naturally. This business has provided a real boost to the livelihoods of the villagers,” he said.