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Papua New Guinea’s betel high defies control, convention

November 16, 2018
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In this Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018, photo, Margaret John smiles as she sells betel nut at the Koki Buai market at Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. Along with drinking alcohol in public places, chewing betel nut and spitting out the messy remains, has been aggressively discouraged in Port Moresby this year. It's part attempt to literally clean up the coastal city of 300,000 as world leaders briefly descend on it for a APEC summit this weekend and part the latest episode of an ongoing struggle to control betel nut after previous attempts to completely ban it in the city caused chaos. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (AP) — A ubiquitous sight in Papua New Guinea’s capital is men, women and children chewing betel nut combined with slaked lime and mustard bean, turning lips, teeth and tongue a dark red, and producing a mild high.

Along with drinking alcohol in public, chewing betel nut and spitting out the messy remains has been aggressively discouraged in Port Moresby this year. It’s part attempt to clean up the coastal city of 300,000 as world leaders briefly descend on it for a Pacific Rim summit this weekend and part the latest episode of an ongoing struggle to control betel nut after previous attempts to completely ban it in the city caused chaos.

Prime Minister Peter O’Neill wants Papua New Guinea, one of the least urbanized countries in the world, to present its best face for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting. Faces with red lips and stained teeth are not part of that vision.

At the Koki Buai market, more than two dozen vendors laid out mounds of the green betel palm fruit and small piles of mustard beans as an excited crowd was kept under control by threats and admonishments from heavies, some wielding bits of wood, employed to keep order.

“I’m happy that APEC has come to PNG and I’m happy the leaders are here, everyone from other countries,” said vendor Rodney Pupu. “I want to welcome all of you.”

The market is one of several set up in Port Moresby over the past several years as a compromise that allows the trade in “green gold” to continue.

Chewing betel nut has deep cultural roots in Papua New Guinea’s tribal societies but in the capital has morphed into addiction and lucrative business. Medical experts says prolonged use causes oral cancer.

A total ban imposed in Port Moresby in 2013 spiraled into conflict that caused deaths and property damage and deprived thousands of people of livelihoods, development economist Busa Jeremiah Wenogo wrote in a blog. Another total ban was threatened earlier this year but was wound back after tear gas fired by police to disperse vendors drifted into a school, Wenogo said. There were also allegations police stripped vendors naked as a form of punishment.

The current solution — designated markets — also has its problems because of cramped conditions and confrontations between rival factions, he said.

At Koki Buai, handfuls of the fruit were selling for 2-5 kina (60 cents to $3) and mustard beans for 1-2 kina. Pupu said he can make 1,000 kina ($300) in a week and double that if a rugby match — a national obsession — is happening in the town.

Before the market, which some of the vendors credited the minister for APEC Justin Tkatchenko with setting up, Pupu said selling was a cat-and-mouse game with police.

Asked if he was concerned about the high cost of hosting the summit and controversies such as the import of 40 luxury Maserati cars to transport VIPs, Pupu deferred to the market’s boss, a feisty woman hovering nearby.

Another man, John Simage, interjected.

“I strongly disagree that the government decided to take so much money and buy the Maseratis when we actually have cars in Papua New Guinea that we could use to transport delegates,” he said. “We could have saved that money to bring further development to the country.”

What’s been called Papua New Guinea’s global coming-out party has caused both pride and discord and underlined the yawning gulf between a small well-educated minority and the poor, who include the 85 percent of people living in the highlands and other remote areas.

City social services worker Tony Sari said the country needs development but also acknowledged that the summit expenses were unpopular outside the capital, where basic public services such as health and education are limited.

“It’s like living. You have good days and bad days,” he said, weighing up the pros and cons.

It was clear, Sari said, that the overhaul of Port Moresby has made an impact.

When he travels in his National Capital District Commission vehicle, people sometimes shout “APEC! APEC!” he said, amused to find himself getting credit.

At a busy supermarket, 21-year-old groceries bagger Catherine Lapsie said she was “really happy” her small country is getting attention.

The restrictions on public drinking and betel nut chewing could change behavior for the better, she said, but was also afraid of what might happen once the foreign dignitaries leave.

“I feel something terrible will happen,” she said. “They said after the APEC meeting, something will go on,” Lapsie said, grimacing while trying to explain her fears in English.

Switching to a local language, she explained that more tourists might come and prices increase, making life more difficult for ordinary Papua New Guineans.

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