Lontar palm (Burassus Sundaicus) is tall like a coconut tree but with the leaves of a fan palm and it can be found along the coastal regions of West Timor and other neighbouring islands. It can be used in so many ways: as a food, fronds are woven into baskets for offerings or made into the most exquisite harp like musical instruments; it’s a building material that is adaptable and very strong.
As a food palm sugar is said to be a complete ayurvedic food and each traditional home will have a large pot of it. Adding peanuts as protein provides most nutritional needs. The liquid can be also be fermented and is much in demand at wedding celebrations.
(Image of Lontar Palm Harp taken at the West Timor Museum's exhibition on Lontar Palm)
On Friday we travelled to Kuanheun in West Timor to see palm sugar being tapped. The countryside is very dry; clusters of Lontar palm grow in a large brown paddock and are farmed by various families. The family we meet own 60 trees, three have been tapped this morning and our famer has held off on the fourth so we can watch.
He is well into his fifties, thin, wiry and fast as anything as he climbs expertly up the 35 feet tall palm swaying madly in a very strong wind. The long palm flowers are sliced through and a basket made of Lontar fronds hangs beneath to catch the dripping liquid, at least two bags where hanging from the tree.
The liquid is hauled down in another basket hanging from his back and not a drop is spilled. A system of filtration ensures a pure and delicious liquid which can then be fermented for wine or boiled for palm syrup and then dried into a crystallised sugar.
(Examples of Lontar palm baskets used to carry and filter the palm liquid)
( Wenton one of our guides explains that his father is also a farmer (in Bali) and that he too can do this and that the Lontar climbers can also jump from tree to tree to save having to come back down and up! Wenton has a degree in law from Denpassar University. I don’t think many Australian lawyers would also have this tree climbing and tree jumping skill!)
Our farmer invites us back to his home to sample the wine. This is a spontaneous event but before we know chairs are being carried from all the homes to ensure we have enough seats. I’m always amazed at how quickly word travels that we are visiting, hospitality is always shown, and kids arrive from nowhere and follow us.
Some time back the villagers decided that no longer would a local man need to be able to climb and tap the Lontar before he married. Education was now the most important thing. It means that few people under the age of 40 do this for a living.
Also more money can be made from rice farming which is done in the same fields of the Lontar. The flooding of the land for rice production means that no new Lontar palms can grow.
I feel that I have seen a remarkable way of life in its demise.