Off Their Nut In PNG
By Jo ChandlerOctober 15, 2013
Chewing betel nut is a sociable, buzzy distraction from the day’s burdens for rich and poor alike in Papua New Guinea. Its trade is also an economic lifeline. So why is an ambitious politician risking his career by chewing over prohibition?
The trajectory and velocity achieved by Papua New Guinea’s more accomplished betel-juice spitters is something to behold.
Some stylists favour a technique of holding two fingers in a V to their lips, which tightens the aperture, enabling fine-tuning of the squirt. Creative types with time on their hands might craft a stencil on the pavement, spitting carefully around the edges of a leaf.
Taxi drivers practice a disconcerting ritual of opening the driver’s door – never easing off the accelerator – and leaning deep into the traffic to emphatically expectorate. As the car windows are likely wound down anyway in the heat (the air conditioner is inevitably on the fritz) it’s not obvious what the point of this manoeuvre is – etiquette? Maybe it avoids blow-back striking rear-seat passengers?
Your minimalist will simply stow his or her (women like their betel nut just as much as men do) marinated and macerated buai cud – a vaguely narcotic composition of betel nut, mustard fruit and lime powder – within a bulging cheek, rattle up the saliva byproduct and let rip.
The stream is like a lightning-quick lizard tongue – you half expect it to pluck a mosquito out of the air and roll back. Instead it forms a sluice for the blood-red juice which might clear a body-length of distance before thwacking into the nearest wall or tree or unwary bystander. Unguided emissions arc through space before succumbing to gravity. Splashdown.
In the recently released 2009-10 Household Income and Expenditure Survey, almost half the PNG population reported that they chew betel nut every day. Certainly the evidence of the nation’s buai addiction is writ large across crowded urban spaces and remote rural settlements alike. Rivulets of bright spittle soak into broken pavements, and stains strafe city walls and the backs of toilet doors, fading from red to dark shadows according to their vintage. (Anxious first-time visitors to PNG, already imagining menace at every turn, frequently mistake the betel juice for blood.)
Papua New Guinea’s rich and poor, educated and not, love their buai. When sitting down with wantoks or friends it’s the convivial, affordable equivalent of sharing a bottle of wine – sociable, relaxing, celebratory, a buzzy distraction from the day’s burdens, and all for the price of a couple of kina (AUD1).
For many it’s an addictive pick-me-up, an energising kick out of tropical torpor. It’s an appetite suppressant – useful when kaikai (food) is scarce. It’s a palette cleanser. “The hardened betel nut chewer would rather give up everything else in life than his betel nut,” observed pioneering PNG psychiatrist Dr Burton G. Burton-Bradley many years ago.
The origins of the habit have been lost in the mists, but linguistic and archaeological evidence suggests the practice dates from deep in PNG ancestry, perhaps to the Lapita culture, the presumed settlers of Melanesia.
So when the Port Moresby Governor, Powes Parkop, recently proposed local laws banning the sale and consumption of buai in public spaces across most of the capital, along with herding vendors and users into a handful of designated marketplace chew zones, some railed against it as a cultural assault; some approved of the objective (cleaner streets), but deplored the draconian mechanism; and many dismissed it as crazy King Canutian ambition. Undeterred, Parkop imposed the ban from October 1.
“People just sell anywhere, any time, and the chewing part is just an ugly, filthy habit that people have been getting away with for too long,” he explained to Radio New Zealand. “Enough is enough,” he thundered to local reporters. “Betel nut contributes nothing to our body and has no nutritious value in it. It only destroys our environment with litter and spittle and contributes to tuberculosis and cancer.”
The Governor dispatched roving squads of enforcers onto the streets, arming them with loudhailers and powers to shut down street vendors and hit chewers and spitters with whopping 300 Kina on-the-spot fines (penalties are not supposed to come into effect until the end of the month). In addition, from November, the transporting of betel nut into the capital will be tightly restricted, with spot checks made of private cars (K300 penalty), people-movers (K300), ships (K10,000) and air cargo (K10,000 ($4,000)).
Port Moresby, Parkop says, should be “the pride of the nation”, but debris from the buai bisnis and the raucous congregations it encourages have been a blight on the city. “As long as I am the governor, this betel-nut ban will continue,” he says.
Nothing less than the political career of this ambitious former human-rights lawyer is at stake. An editorial in one of the nation’s two daily newspapers, The National – while heartily approving the initiative and congratulating the Governor on his bravery – describes the move as likely “political suicide”.
“If he never wins another election at least he can say he was the first Member of Parliament to do something constructive about betel nuts,” the paper opines. It was time for regulation “to put an end to the careless disregard that many chewers have of spitting the contents of their mouths anywhere in public, and the health risks associated with chewing ... in combination with lime and mustard”. The PNG Medical Society estimates that chewing betel nut kills about 2,000 citizens a year, because it contributes to mouth and throat cancers, gastritis, ulcers and poor oral health.
A couple of weeks into the ban, which coincided with the timely arrival of some long-awaited rains over the parched city, Port Moresby looks markedly cleaner – sparkling, according to some more lyrical commentators – and the Governor’s political eulogy seems a bit premature. Chewers and non-chewers alike welcome the improvement in conditions, and wait to see whether they will endure.
Former medical student turned buai-seller turned stirrer/blogger and now local TV commentator Martyn Namorong has been one of the most outspoken critics of the controls. “The Government of PNG was more than willing to clean up the mess after the miners fucked up at Tolukuma and Ok Tedi, yet it doesn’t want to spend a small amount of money cleaning up buai stains and husks,” he wrote in a blog last year.
But now looking around the city the impact is immediate, obvious and welcome, he concedes. “The fact that the city is so clean – it’s hard to argue with that,” he tells The Global Mail. For now, the vendors and chewers have been largely spooked off the main thoroughfares; they now trade furtively in the backblocks or in the markets, their clientele indulge their habit in the privacy of their homes and neighbourhoods. “In the short term, it’s a good thing – we’ve got a clean city. I’m not sure though about the longer term,” says Namorong.
His concern, which is widely shared, is for the economic and social repercussions of the ban, especially given the anticipated impacts of lower commodity prices and the pending completion of the $US19 billion Exxon-Mobil-led PNGLNG (liquefied natural gas) project building phase – and the end of the local jobs that came with it.
“Buai provides social security for urban people, and that is why I’ve fought against the ban,” says Namorong. “I recognise the cleanliness. But if financial pressures increase, who knows what will happen.”
The betel-nut trade is the bedrock of the nation’s thriving informal economy, an industry that provides income for some of its most marginalised and ill-served citizens and communities, giving them cash for goods and services that then churns into the formal economy; money cycles out of the settlements and into suburbia and then back to the buai stand.
Importantly it also redistributes money from urban to rural areas, says the Australian National University’s Dr Timothy Sharp, who did his PhD research on the trade of buai into the highlands.
Based on detailed marketplace surveys in 2007 he calculated the wholesale turnover of betel nut and betel pepper in Mt Hagen's Kaiwei at around K35 million per year. “By the time it is on-sold by marketplace vendors and then again on the roadsides as individual nuts, it could be worth twice that,” Sharp says. “Based on this I would think the betel nut trade in Port Moresby would be worth in the order of K100 million per year or more.”
Busa Jeremiah Wenogo, an economist at the PNG Consultative Monitoring and Implementation Council in Port Moresby, who specialises in the informal sector, says that no other legal agricultural product nets such profits to producers and traders alike.
Easy to grow, easy to harvest, requiring few inputs, and no processing, and causing minimal disruption to the landscape, betel nut – the fruit of the Areca catechu palm – is a powerhouse player in the PNG economy.
The significance of the betel-nut trade is reflected most dramatically in its weighting of 7.5 per cent in the PNG Consumer Price Index, Wenogo says.
An analysis by PNG agricultural specialist Dr Mike Bourke of the Australian National University some years ago ranked betel nut as the fourth biggest earner for rural farmers, after coffee, fresh food and cocoa, and he found that it accounts for 10 per cent of rural incomes.
The power of the buai buck is borne out by numerous anecdotes of traders hiring aircraft to move shipments from producers to consumers around the country. And there was the story published last year by PNG journalist and documentary maker Scott Waide about a tiny community in East Sepik, in an isolated bay on the Bismarck Sea, where there is no road access, which is earning an average $A400,000 a year by running a co-operative buai – growing and exporting venture. It has reinvested its profits into a fleet of nine new boats with 40HP outboard engines. The community has also diversified into dried cocoa beans and portable sawmills, to produce timber for its houses – shooing off the advances of a Malaysian logging company. One-tenth of the co-operative’s revenue goes into the local school.
At the bottom of the buai chain are people like Helen Michael, a typical player in the street trading scene. A gentle, well-spoken battler with seven children, she lives in a shanty rigged from salvaged tin, timber and ingenuity in the Talai settlement on a ridge above downtown Port Moresby. Michael is still recovering from a random, brutal street attack in which her bottom lip was bitten off by a deranged assailant (whom police caught but released without charge).
Ordinarily she clears K20 to K30 a day selling jars of lime. Her neighbours and suppliers produce the lime (calcium hydroxide) by burning seashells on wood fires and then sifting the ashes. Chewers use it as a condiment, dipping the mustard fruit into the powder and then mixing it in their mouths with the nut – it’s this combination that produces the red colour (and the worst of the health effects).
Since October 1, Michael has shut up shop, forfeiting her meagre income rather than risk a fine while she waits to see how the ban plays out. She likes the cleaner streets, she says, but for her they come at substantial personal cost. She can’t pay off the small debt she owes to a local money lender, and the interest is accumulating. Her household gets by largely on the earnings of one daughter and whatever her husband can bring in.
A rung above her on the buai-market ladder are the sellers, many of whom say they regularly earn K100 a day – well above the minimum wage, but tax free. (Many advocates of buai restrictions are keen to see those who earn good incomes from the business pay their share of tax.) Bruce Baluba, trading at Hohola market – one of the designated selling and chewing zones – says he earns more at his stall each day than he did in his days as a school teacher. He too is supportive of the ban, but then he’s got a box seat in a protected trading zone.
Economist Wenogo is concerned that heavily restricting or banning buai will create a black market that distorts the economy. He would rather see less hard-line measures that still regulate the consumption of betel nut, but which won’t force people to break laws just to make ends meet. A key concern of many opponents of the Port Moresby ban is that it will compel the most desperate citizens into crime or prostitution.
“It is also important to emphasise that the people earning income from betel nut are not just the very poor. A great number of households use income (from buai) to supplement the household’s wage income,” says Sharp.
“I suspect the proposed ban is unlikely to work in the long term. The betel nut trade is simply worth too much money to too many people.”
Only time will tell if Governor Powes Parkop has bitten off more than he can chew.