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<p>Vlad Sokhin</p>

Vlad Sokhin

An 8-year-old boy from Messi village in New Ireland Province chews betel nut.

Off Their Nut In PNG

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.

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.

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.

<p>Vlad Sokhin</p>

Vlad Sokhin

A betel nut seller in Hohola market, Port Moresby.

“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.

“The hardened betel nut chewer would rather give up everything else in life than his betel nut.”

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.

<p>Vlad Sokhin</p>

Vlad Sokhin

Children play in the Talai settlement.

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.

“Betel nut has no nutritious value. It only destroys our environment with litter and spittle and contributes to tuberculosis and cancer.”

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).

<p>Vlad Sokhin</p>

Vlad Sokhin

Helen Michael, a resident of the Talai settlement, supports her unemployed husband and seven children by selling lime powder.

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.

<p>Vlad Sokhin</p>

Vlad Sokhin

Betel nut stains and debris splattered on a PNG road.
11 comments on this story
by Pearson Vetuna

A well researched and very clear narrative of the buai trade in PNG and the restrictions imposed by NCD governor Powes Parkop. The restrictions are in the national capital not in PNG as a whole so the trade will continue elsewhere giving income to the ordinary and the battler and of course to the multi-kina traders from the highlands region.

In Kokopo, East New Britian, the Kokopo market, run by the Kokopo-Vunamami LLG, has restrictions on where buai sellers can sell their nuts. They are allocated a building of their own where they sell buai, mustard and lime. Sellers of other produce are allocated their own buildings as well. There's a ban on chewing and spitting in and around the market and town areas and no walking on the lawns around the market. Regulation breakers get an on-the-spot fine. This appears to be working at the moment. The market is very clean and tidy.

My point, a ban does not necessarily mean the end for buai sellers. There can be ways to still let people earn a living from buai, just as long as people observe the regulations that are put in place for the benefit of creating a healthy and clean environment. I think its a reasonable move.

October 17, 2013 @ 6:57pm
by Bryant Allen

Great article Jo. Love the last line. This is a difficult one. So important to the local economy. So bad for health. Buai is more than just a sociable experience. It is more addictive than tobacco, which is highly addictive. Arecoline is a similar molecule to nicotine and is as carcinogenic. Giving up buai is as difficult as stopping smoking tobacco and almost everyone chews, including most policemen and most politicians. It is going to be interesting to see how quickly the black market develops, but you can bet that it will happen faster than a brown paper envelope can travel from Konedobu to Waigani.

October 18, 2013 @ 10:53am
by Eric Omuru

Well researched and balanced article, enjoyed reading it. I live in East New Britain, where Kokopo market is as noted in the previous comment and I grew up in Milne Bay where Alotau is the provincial capital. I go back there quite often. These two towns have one thing in common: both allow the sale of betel nut in their markets but people are restricted from chewing in the markets and spitting in public places. Rubbish drums are provided for people to spit or dispose their rubbish in a proper and responsible manner. The two towns are two of the cleanest in PNG.
Residents of Port Moresby come from all parts of PNG, where in some parts buai is not part of their culture but have adopted the consumption of it and are active participants in its commercialisation. For Port Moresby, there needs to be a change in attitude by sellers and chewers of buai. The ban has made the city very clean and looking good, however the economic and social impacts are likely to follow soon enough. I suggest the good governor and his team work on a long term plan that creates a 'win-win' situation where the traders can sell and generate income to support their livelihoods and we have a city that is clean because people become responsible. If Kokopo and Alotau can do it, I believe it can be done in Port Moresby.

October 18, 2013 @ 12:44pm
by Reginald Renagi

The real solutions to keeping Port Moresby clean is in 'better regulations'. It's still early days to be able to say with some certainty that the recent 'total buai ban' in the National Capital District (NCD) is a successful policy by City Hall.
The resent Port buai ban in the capital is an extreme measure that may over time proved to be not an effective deterrent for many obvious reasons. The real reason (s) for this draconian public policy action by the NCDC or cityhall is that the city authority has badly failed to fully appreciate and diligently addressed the whole issue for a very long time now.

Let's face the facts, the 'green gold' trade of the areca nut (betel) is big business within our region. It is here to stay and will not go away just because we say so.
Hence, the betel-ban in PNG's capital city will not really kill off its sale and consumption completely as traders because buai consumers will still and always find creative new ways to get around the corresponding challenge of keeping 'Mosbi ' clean in future.

October 18, 2013 @ 1:39pm
by merlin GEIKIE

Why do 'do gooders' have to act is such petty ways?

Let them have the betel nut. It is a traditional and not harmful and may be medicinal.

Look at Singapore when they 'hygienized' the place, they emasculated the character of the place.

Let the Betel roll and instead this politician need to look at what REALLY needs work done,

Is it more of a distraction to hide the corruption that is really going on by discriminating against the poor and powerless?

I think so!

October 19, 2013 @ 8:45pm
by Brus

Maybe I missed something, but I didn't see the words "mouth cancer" mentioned anywhere in the article. Does nobody dare mention how common this problem is amongst betel chewers?

October 20, 2013 @ 3:44pm
by Jo Cooper

Good pickup Brus, short write-up of the WHO report last year is here (on tobacco, buai, and them being used together):

http://asopa.typepad.com/asopa_people/2012/03/buai-habit-is-highly-dangerous-says-who.html

"It details the origin, history and current trends of betel nut and tobacco use in 10 Western Pacific countries and provides a platform of action for the control of the substances.

The International Agency for Cancer Research classifies betel nut as a Group 1 carcinogen. Smokeless tobacco use is associated with cancers of the oral cavity, pancreas and oesophagus. The nicotine in tobacco also leads to addiction, making it more difficult to give up the betel nut chewing when mixed with tobacco.

“The increasingly common practice of chewing betel nut quid mixed with tobacco greatly increases a person’s risk for bleeding gums, periodontal disease and oral lesions and cancer,” says Dr Shin."

Actual report is here:

http://www.wpro.who.int/tobacco/documents/201203_Betelnut/en/

"Betel nut chewing induces oral precancerous lesions that have a high propensity to progress. Betel nut itself has been classified as a Group 1 carcinogen (carcinogenic to humans) by the International Agency for Cancer Research (IARC). "

October 23, 2013 @ 10:41pm
by Mark

Brus and Jo - paragraphs 11 and 15 mention cancer. Parkop cites it as one of the reasons he is imposing the ban.

merlin GEIKIE you haven't the faintest idea, do you? Chewing beetle nut is a significant public health problem in many parts of PNG, not just Moresby. It is not possible to walk 10 metres in a straight line in the centre of Moresby without stepping over a buai stain, or in the case of favoured spitting locations, a puddle. In rural areas I have seen a family selling beetle nut on the roadside, who were proud to show off their rotted teeth, no more than blackened stumps remaining after years of chewing lime with their beetle nut. This included children in their early teens. Powes Parkop is far from a do gooder and he has wide support in PNG for this initiative.

October 25, 2013 @ 9:46am
Show previous 8 comments
by Jo

First time I went to PNG - got off the plane at Port Moresby embued with enthusiasm for making a difference via AusAid, and was absolutely floored by the combined assaults of country wide body odour and what appeared to be blood splattered everywhere. Having heard of the levels of violence, it was very easy to confuse betel nut spit for huge dollops of blood.

October 27, 2013 @ 8:17pm
by Lindsay

I lived and worked in PNG for four years. Mt Hagen and PM and traveled the country. It was a shame to see children of eight to ten years old with such great smiles chewing the nut that will ultimately reduce them to people at their mid-twenties with black degenerated teeth and very ugly smiles. As with most things it is culture and habit. Very hard to change...

November 5, 2013 @ 10:29am
by Christopher U Haro

Jo, I read your story with keen interest and whilst I welcome the graphic description of chewing the buia and the effects it creates. I wonder if in you research you did also consider the the view of the suppliers of the nut? If so I be interested in your thoughts and suggests on the best way forward for this precious nut.

February 1, 2014 @ 12:03pm
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