IT IS UNFORTUNATELY TRUE that betel nut trade does not make any direct contribution to foreign exchange earnings for PNG. Well, neither does brus or pinats or kumu or kaukau or tapoika or: wait a minute, neither do most of the fresh fruit and vegetables we grow and sell in our local market places all over the country!
The question is posed; are there similarities between the buai bisnis agenda and any of the ‘traditional PNG’ crop and livestock produce?
How about this one: some wise guy (supposedly a research scientist) wrote that at last count there were at least 1.8 million native pigs being kept by village farmers across PNG. One of his colleagues then estimated that this pork meat production was 27 times more than the total output of commercial production in the country.
But that situation may change now that we’ve got the LNG blowing everything out of proportion. The commercial farms as well as the many rural farmers and farming organizations in PNG are now trying to capitalize on the market created by the LNG boom to start up livestock businesses and my guess is that there’ll be a lot of interested potbellied politicians involved too; pigs of all kinds!
Anyway, back to our scientists, another one recently commented that a very conservative estimate of the gross value of traditional pig production (i.e. not charging typical PNG prices for pigs) was PGK 162 million or AUD 69 million. Not a bad bit of business, eh laka? But, if we were to stick to our economic explanation, this ‘village production’ doesn’t bring in any foreign exchange either because it has not been tied into a ‘formal production’ system that has output into an overseas market. Simply put, we need to sell to someone not living in PNG to get some Aussie dollar.
So we can count this as another wasted opportunity because we haven’t learned enough about the workings and potential of that existing traditional PNG pig production system in order to harness and control it for our collective economic betterment. Instead PNG is a net importer of meat and we can buy pig jowls from Australia for around PGK12 per kilo at a local butchery in Mt. Hagen. Go figure!
And that’s only about pig production, if we were to talk about kaukau the same sorry tale would be repeated, even though those rural sweet potato farmers move container loads of bagged tubers from the highlands to Lae and on to Port Moresby, without government assistance! (Ask Consort and Bismark Shipping.) By the way, sweet potato is a delicacy in Australia and McDonalds sells a sweet potato chip specialty with its traditional Big Mac’s.
So what does betel nut have to do with it?
The arguments for better facilitating the betel nut trade are similar; learning and control (and both together too!). That’s one of the jobs of government (and that means us too!), to find out how things are working, if they can be improved for the betterment of one and all and, in a more philosophical sense as one friend on PNG Attitude has recently expounded, to balance the agenda of individualism and pluralism – persons and people.
If we wish to maintain our urban environments in a healthy, hygienic and aesthetically pleasing fashion while still enjoying our betel nut chewing habits then it’s about time we learned and took better control of at least two things; (1) how buai bisnis works and (2) how the actors and their customers impact on the public areas, especially since it’s the customers who create the buai stains.
The latter point may be a matter for psychologists, sociologists, social engineers and city commissions to figure out. I propose that it is possible that the needs of buai bisnis and city authorities are not in total conflict. After all the betel nut trade depends on the ‘urban natives’, its primary customers, in order to exist profitably. Furthermore, it is worth reiterating that the betel nut trade is probably one of the most effective means in which money is transferred from urban centres to rural villages.
The first issue however, is one that I’ve written about previously and which concerns the economy in PNG, where small-scale businesses and street vending has, according to conventional wisdom, negative macroeconomic repercussions in the loss of foreign exchange.
So what makes the betel nut trade work as a local industry that spreads around PNG currency? The easy answer is demand and supply. In PNG the demand is everywhere so the more interesting aspect is supply.
The betel nut trade is an important cash income earner for many rural and urban families. Furthermore, where the betel nut palm is grown it is readily inter-planted with other garden and cash crops affording an opportunistic source of income. In other words there is no conflict, at least among village farmers, about any competitive loss between betel nut and say, cocoa and copra production.
Anecdotally, it’s cheaper to buy buai in Tambul WHP than in Tokarara NCD, but definitely more costly in Tabubil. But such an example is also indicative of the relative wealth of customers as well as the surfeit of supply along differing supply chains.
There are many other questions about the betel nut trade that should be raised too like:
What makes the betel nut supply chain so efficient and effective that betel nut has become a cash crop of convenience, and along with its accessory products mustard and lime, travel from the coast right up into the hinterlands of the country (sometimes illegally)?
Who are the actors in this trade and supply chain, what are their strengths, weaknesses and challenges and how have they used and overcome them without any external interventions?
What resources and services do they access and what avenues of financial capital are available to them?
These seem to me to be some pretty important questions for understanding the betel nut trade but there are likely to be more. If we don’t know the answer to these questions then how do we expect to curb betel nut trade without coming to logger heads with a very large proportion of our people who either demand or are economically dependent on buai bisnis?
While it is pleasing to see that the NCD Commission is trying to clamp down on illegal markets and uncontrolled street vending in the capital city, it is likely that in the short and long term there will be continued resistance to such drastic enforced changes.
My impression of the NCD commission and thereby the government approach to betel nut trade is that with one hand we would crush our informal sector, while asking people to farm more cash crops to contribute to earning foreign exchange. Then with the other hand we give away millions of kina to a business run by an already wealthy business man to set up an airline that much less than one thousandth of the population can afford to use regularly if at all, despite the lower fares. And that’s just one example.
This is the same crowd that delivered a National Agricultural Development Plan then somehow managed to lose track of spending on hundreds of millions of kina while simultaneously giving themselves a100% pay rise (a motion which was unopposed by any MP in parliament). And we’re not splitting too many hairs on that issue are we PNG?
While agricultural production is promoted by almost every single MP and government team, preaching the same weary rhetoric about our back bone, we are yet to see any significant and sustainable interventions for farming communities in PNG to be able to contribute meaningfully to earning foreign exchange.
What’s buai got to do with it? Well, PNG put your money where your mouth is and try chewing on that!