An entry in The Crocodile Prize
PNG Chamber of Mines & Petroleum
Award for Essays & Journalism
THE betel nut ban in the city of Port Moresby has brought to the fore a deeper and more pressing issue. The issue of sustainable livelihoods and the need to secure the livelihoods of many citizens of Papua New Guinea.
The core of the issue appears to be the need of individuals and families to make a living through a secure and sustainable means.
The ban on betel nut sales has been enforced by city rangers and police since the law was passed. The ban makes it clear that betel nut trading is not a sustainable means of livelihood as it is susceptible to shocks and risks.
Basically the ban prohibits the sales and consumption of betel nut in public places, including buildings within the city limits, streets and pavements.
But, amidst the ban, the favourite nut is making a comeback.
According to my own assessment and research, the issues which have necessitated the ban include:
Security & safety: bag snatching and petty crimes are observed to occur closer to where betel nut sales are undertaken. Gordons Market is a very good example.
Image & cleanliness: the manner in which chewers and sellers have conducted themselves with no regard for litter laws, public property and self-restraint.
Health and hygiene: betel nut chewing can lead to mouth cancer. Medical warnings are made against prolonged chewing. Spitting can help spread tuberculosis, which is making a comeback in the settlements and other overcrowded spaces in the city.
Attitude: There appears to be a complete disregard for other by sellers and chewers. Civic virtues and attitudes are yet to be cultivated. Someone made a comment that people appear to be more civil and law abiding only when in Vision City, the mega-mall shopping centre in Waigani.
It seems to me that the ban is justified because people have lost control of their own attitudes in handling the rubbish and spittle from chewing the betel nut.
Since the ban has been enforced, there have been some observable consequences:
Many people have been arrested and charged for not observing the law.
A blackmarket is thriving: the price of a nut has gone up drastically with the result that a few people are able to make a handsome profit from smuggling bags of betel nut into the city.
The innocent and well-meaning people with garden produce and other market goods have been needlessly harassed. Bags bound for the city markets are scrutinised and often mishandled by city rangers and those manning the check-points at Laloki, outside Port Moresby. Commuters from the Kerema and Mekeo areas claim to have become victims of petty crimes at the checkpoint.
Indirectly the ban may have increased the income of Mekeo and Kerema betel nut growers; they are able to sell nuts at higher prices.
Many people involved in the betel nut trade have adopted risky measures to continue in the trade:
Smuggline betel nut bags into the city, endangering their lives. A man was reportedly drowned in the Laloki River after swimming across with several bags of betel nut tied to his body. A pregnant woman was also confirmed drowned while trying to cross the river smuggling nuts.
There are many stories of betel nut smugglers being held up or set upon by petty thugs along those obscure smuggling routes into the city.
Double-dealing by city rangers in taking bribes to allow some people through while being harsh with others.
Unemployed youths, mostly from the settlements and villages around Laloki, have been used as mules to carry the bags, in some cases across crocodile infested swamps and dangerous rivers such as Laloki and Brown rivers.
So some people have lost their lives to eke out a living, through the most basic means they know how – selling betel nuts. This does not require much skill and the nuts are easy to obtain with guarantee of selling them quickly. Many families put food on the table that way.
To many involved in the betel nut trade, the ban came as a shock from which many people have found it difficult to recover, given that they have few or no assets to fall back on.
It appears we are allowing our own people to be degraded to the levels of animals, fighting amongst themselves and against each other for a pittance and the meagre opportunity of putting a few kina in their pockets while the bulk of the nation’s resources and opportunities are being exploited by foreign interests that are enslaving many Papua New Guineans to a life of servitude.
This is an unacceptable and deplorable situation for a resource-rich country.
Many people come to the city looking for opportunity but with no formal education or training. They end up with friends and wantoks, and have been forced to engage in the informal sector. Buying and selling betel nut has been a most attractive option.
Calls to enforce the Vagrancy Act to stop people coming to the city are superficial and appear to be a bandaid treatment as the critical issues are not addressed.
If we have not failed as a country, then we have been utterly ignorant of addressing the sustainable livelihood needs of many of our people using the windfalls from our resources.
Thanks to the National Capital District Commission and Governor Powes Parkop, the importance of promoting and sustaining people’s livelihood has been brought to the fore through the betel nut ban.
Can people adapt and promote other livelihood strategies? Without assets and opportunities they cannot! That is a fact.
People, especially young citizens, need to be skilled and given the opportunities that will engage them. Right now there are too many young and able-bodied people aimlessly seeking opportunities that are not there.
I see an opportunity here to do something constructive about securing the livelihoods of many people. It is up to policy makers and leaders to sit up and take notice of how well (and not necessarily how much) we have done to secure the livelihoods of people through good policy and with the revenues generated from our natural resources.
The situation is no longer about insufficient money or resources. With each electorate allocated K10 million a year for the District Services Improvement Program (DSIP), there is enough money to even address livelihood issues.
The issues now appear to be leadership, innovation, creativity, and the political will to do something constructive to engage people meaningfully and gainfully.
That should be a good starting point.