Betel nut: underground economies

PUTTING an end to Papua New Guinea’s buai (betel nut) trade would have dire ramifications, according to prominent blogger and buai seller Martyn Namarong*.
Betel nut: underground economies Betel nut: underground economies Betel nut: underground economies Betel nut: underground economies Betel nut: underground economies

Published in the June-July 2012 PNG Report magazine

The popularity of buai is plain to see in Port Moresby's splattered streets and footpaths if not on the blood-red grins of its people. Sold by street vendors and even used by primary school children, corporate management types and the odd government minister, there is a perception that a can of coke and a kina of buai is enough to work all day.

In any case, as both a mild stimulant and an appetite suppressant buai seems to have one up on the effects of caffeine for at least the working poor of PNG.

Just like the divisive habit of smoking, most people either quietly accept or condemn the habit.

Malum Nalu, a senior journalist for The National, is firmly in the camp against it. As part of his own personal crusade he regularly posts on his blog images of buai pekpek - the messy spat out remains - along with other rubbish strewn throughout Port Moresby's streets.

The government is also becoming more vocal about taking on the buai trade. In an effort to clean up the streets of the capital, there was a police crackdown on street vendors and buai markets in May.

Assistant police commissioner Francis Tokura even claimed this operation was for the benefit of street vendors because they were at risk of being targeted by criminals.

As the most media-savvy buai seller around, Namarong unsurprisingly picked apart the government motivations on his blog.

"The litter issue arises through inefficient public administration," he wrote. "Isn't the government paying someone for garbage disposal?"

What is less reported is that the crackdown on street vendors has failed to make a notable difference.

Namarong had no difficulties before his recent public speaking tour of eastern Australia and he told PNG Report a lot of other buai traders were unaffected.

While he said traders would always find ways to get around any government crackdown, Namarong said if betel nut markets were really affected there would political and economic implications. "People would take to the streets," he said.

"Why? Because it is the betel nut economy that subsidises the formal economy. Workers in Papua New Guinea get crap wages and they sell buai to supplement the family budget."

A former medical student, Namarong's passion might be writing but it is the betel nut economy which gives him a living. A sole operator typically makes 100 tax-free kina a day from about 50 customers.

He estimates high-end sellers could make 1000 kina a day by selling the large coffee bag loads of buai, the accepted size up from the 10kg rice bag which often takes about two days to sell as individual buai.

The total betel nut trade could be the biggest underground economy in PNG, with one of the main contenders being artisanal gold mining, which has become stronger with the rising gold price over the past few years.

Based on the thriving betel nut exchange in Mt Hagen, which accounts for half of the buai sales in the Highlands, Namarong makes his own guess at how big this business is.

"I would say it would have to be close to half a billion kina a year."

Namarong regularly delves into government failures in his blog and commentary. He says the current political crisis was irrelevant to most Papua New Guineans as "life at the buai market will go on as usual".

On the subject of the national elections he said: "The problem is we don't have new leadership coming up so one of the things that is going to happen is that someone from the O'Neill-Namah camp is going to be PM again after the election."

While PNG Report does not agree with all of Namarong's views such as his across-the-board opposition to mining and petroleum developments in the country, Namarong does back the agricultural sector, especially cocoa and copra farming where profits go directly back to the growers.

He isn't necessarily opposed to large scale farming developments either.

"I think the people should decide for themselves how much land they want to use but as long as it is Papua New Guineans doing it for themselves I don't mind that. Them using their land as a resource to make money."

Out of his recent public speaking tour of Brisbane, Sydney and Canberra, Namarong penned a story for a mainstream newspaper and did radio interviews. While he has since returned to his day job of selling buai in Port Moresby, he might be moving on from being perhaps PNG's best-known blogger.

"I don't know what is happening next," he said. "Hopefully I get to do something else. I don't see blogging as something that I am going to do forever and ever, in fact I have been helping out other people to take up blogging as well."

*Update: Despite his comments in this story, Namarong announced in September that he was going back home to Western Province.

"Many city residents will also note that lately there has been a major crackdown on buai sellers like me," he said on his blog at the time.

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