Parliament kills unpopular environment changes

Let’s not mince words about buai bisnis


Buai - the makingsBUAI BISNIS IS A REAL (but either maligned or ignored) agenda item in PNG; apart from somewhat ad hoc attempts to try and minimise the associated health impacts and ascetic concerns of city markets, streets and public places.

But if so many people are affected by buai bisnis shouldn’t it be a central concern to us Papua New Guineans getting our collective acts together?

There are two separate issues to address: (1) regulating the betel nut industry for health and environmental concerns in urban areas and (2) facilitating for the betel nut trade to continue its function of transferring money equitably to rural people through those involved in the informal sector.

On the first issue, despite numerous attempts, particularly in urban areas, to literally clean up our act regarding PNG’s favourite mouth-watering appetizers, because of the resulting discharge which creates unsightly red stains, there seems little success in curbing the onslaught on our municipalities.

Even the Health Department warnings of the disastrous results of chewing this addictive, alkaloid drenched nut, masticated with mustard fruit and blended with lime, are ignored!

Health warnings are all very well intentioned and if the authorities wanted to go that far they should ban betel nut sales altogether. That appears to be an impractical option. (Methinks though that next to a shortage of rice that action may create concerns about rioting!)

On the other hand health warnings should be supported, because they provide a means of awareness (deterrence of over doing it) and advocacy to take better care of our own oral health as well as community health and hygiene.

There is no doubt that the health warnings are well justified, the ascetic appeal and environmental hygiene is a real public health concern and that the habit of chewing in public places (particularly PMV’s) can be a disgusting habit of some individuals.

But let’s face the uncomfortable truth, people love chewing buai, most of our suburban communities revolve around betel nut markets, segments of the community rely (some almost entirely) on betel nut sales to meet their daily needs for sustenance and ‘the money goes back home’. Buai is part of our PNG lifestyle and not just about livelihoods.

Therefore, if we were to acknowledge the fact that a vast majority of people want to chew buai, and are unlikely to quit their habit in the near future, then we may be more mentally prepared to start finding more workable and enforceable solutions. And these solutions may not need to be costly or cumbersome in effecting.

On the second issue, regardless of the purely economic perspective that ‘betel nut does not introduce any new money’ into the system, it is recognised that the betel nut trade is not only an active and popular business venture but an entire industry of its own.

Moreover, buai bisnis is a means of gainful employment where people feel self-empowered to be doing something to earn their own income, no matter how big or large the financial returns.

Many anecdotal reports from different areas tell of Highland buai traders chartering airplane flights to Sepik during times when there was short supply. That aside, even the daily transport of buai along the Highlands highway is phenomenal.

Economists should consider mapping the supply chain of this trade. I think it would be quite impressive. (In fact such a study was undertaken by an Australian PhD student, Tim Sharp, around about 2007-2008, if I recall correctly).

In another posting, David Kitchnoge made a point about encouraging rural people to grow commodity crops. But such a suggestion may fall on deaf ears partly because there are too many challenges to overcome with the production and marketing of the commodity crops which we are already familiar with: time to harvest, labour effort, financial investment, processing equipment and farm machinery needs, infrastructural needs such as reliable access to markets, transport and storage facilities.

In other words it’s relatively easier growing betel nuts and there is more immediate financial return, without the need for major inputs or payments for services and the profits are tax free.

The great challenge is for us to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of producing agricultural commodities to make an industry as attractive as or more attractive than the betel nut trade.

It may be necessary to package this primary production in a manner that provides avenue for other business development, such as storage (perhaps with local security provided) and transport or vehicle maintenance and similar small service businesses. In that manner whole ‘corridors’ may become available for people to take part in the economy. There are many government plans in place, and some hopefully, will be implemented to realise development at the rural level.

It may be true that betel nut trade does not, in the macroeconomic sense, ‘bring in new money’ to the country. But the betel trade today remains one of the major players in the micro economies of several interconnected provinces.

The livelihoods of many families are subsidised on small buai bisnis and importantly women and youths are able to take part in buai bisnis as well, which adds a social dimension that may not be well understood. We should take good account of these factors so that we can find the needed balance to improve on the conflicting agenda of buai marketing and chewing versus oral health and environmental concern, and rural versus urban livelihood options.

In addition betel nut trade demands mustard and lime production (to make the mix complete, eh laka?). The latter may be the cause of environmental concern, where sometime coral is used rather than sea shells, and this a potentially more harmful ingredient because of the caustic nature of lime (Calcium carbonate).

Mustard fruit (daka) is also a very lucrative business for farming families in some areas where the fruit, being a spice crop, develops particular characteristics (for example ‘olan’ daka from Morobe).

There is a lot more to understand about how our local buai bisnis, a home-grown industry works. We should endeavour to understand it better if we are to make any improvements in the lives of both rural and urban people, formally or informally engaged, for health or for environmental reasons.

We should be asking ourselves how we can learn from the success of the betel nut trade so that we can improve other commodity crops. Doesn’t that sound like using a home-grown solution, i.e. the PNG way?


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David Kitchnoge

Michael - Indeed my arguments are premised on better alternatives to engaging our prople's productive labour: coffee, cocoa, copra, vanilla, cardamon etc are what I'm arguing for.

We are talking too much buai and are forgetting these important commodities. PNG belongs to the global village of nations and we can not pretend as if international trade and the economics of it doesn't affect us.

Villagers don't know what balance of trade is and they don't care, but that does not mean it doesn' affect them. I used to buy a small tinpis in my village for only 10 toea when I was a kid. That same can now costs K5. But wait, this is at a time when buai bisnis has been flourishing.

How do we engage our people? Well the answer is pretty clear, isn't it? Pressure the government to recreate the enabling environments for these commodities and actively encourage and reengage our people again. Didiman officers must rejoin teachers and nurses back in the villages.

Michael Dom

David - Your questions assume that there is an alternative job waiting four buai vendors so we could assess cost benefit. How do you make this conclusion?

Villagers are not concerned with our balance of trade but daily survival. How do we engage them?

With other developments comes more money spent on buai that goes to villagers. They buy imported items. So how do we estimate this loss of kina?

David Kitchnoge

What is the opportunity cost of buai bisnis? Would the effort put into paddling buai be better spent elsewhere?

Buai trade has a real economic impact on the prices of imported goods as it contributes nothing to our balance of trade inspite of the enormous amount of productive time and effort that our people spend on it.

While on the one hand we are busy importing rice, we export less and less of our own produce. The result is an eternal balance of trade deficit on us. This means the prices of imported goods keep on going one way in Kina terms: upwards.

So we end up with a problem of an unnecessarily imported inflation due to the missalocation of our own productive labour. The fact remains that buai is neither an export commodity nor a substitute of an import. Hence, the pressures on our balance of trade would remain unabated for as long as we engage in the buai bisnis.

Our resource projects will turn this situation around but that must not cloud the facts about the economics of the buai trade.

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