Port Moresby betelnut scene battles on, underground
The public ban on betelnut in Papua New Guinea's capital has cleaned up Port Moresby's streets but is forcing the market underground, driving the cost of the product skywards and harming income streams for grassroots communities.
An incident in which Papua New Guinea police caught three men trying to smuggle betelnut into Port Moresby by water has highlighted ongoing teething problems with the capital's ban on PNG's favourite stimulant.
The three swimmers nearly drowned in strong currents of the Goldie River when police rescued them before confiscating their 20 kilogram bag of betel nut.
Police say arresting smugglers around the borders of the National Capital District is a daily occurrence.
Johnny Blades found that the ban has changed the betelnut game significantly.
The decision by the Governor of the national capital, Powes Parkop, to ban the public sale and consumption of betelnut in a bid to clean up the city's streets was unpopular. For the many vendors who sell goods at roadside stalls across Port Moresby, betelnut, or buai, was a staple product. It seems like most of the adult population chew buai - in their daily lives, during work and play - it's a cultural institution for PNG.
One vendor, Jess Ovorua, tells me that while he understands the need to clean up the city, the ban, which kicked off last year, has killed off what was a reliable source of income.
JESS OVORUA: It's contributing to the economy of the country. In Port Moresby the development is going fast. Very quick. So this buai ban... people can chew betelnut, but all their waste and spitting and all this, they need to... not on the streets. It's a birthright for all us Papua New Guineans. Lots of families are suffering.
But regular visitors to the city will notice how much cleaner the streets are now - the blood red spit stains from buai chewers which once littered the streets and pavement have faded from view. Governor Parkop's campaign to clean up Port Moresby ahead of hosting the Pacific Games next year and the APEC summit in 2018 is making headway. A local called Tony who gives me a lift in his car, says he is thankful for how the ban has cleaned up the streets.
TONY: But the betelnut is still smuggled in because the betelnut ban only applies to the city. But in peripheries, you have people from Central Province, and the betelnut supply comes from Central Province, Gulf Province, and it comes from both highways into Port Moresby and now you have the sea too where people are transporting betelnut through as well.
The Governor's initial plans for the ban included establishing a venue on the periphery of the city for licensed vendors to be able to sell betelnut. However, such a venue is yet to fully get off the ground - regulation of the industry is still forthcoming. A man running a stall in Boroko, Jimmy, says the Governor should have provided an alternative avenue for selling betelnut.
JIMMY: If the government planned to do such things to ban betelnut, they should provide a good avenue... maybe something like that so people can go and sell their goods. At least they could do that. They are looking for alternatives to put the ban, they are doing all sorts of things.
This betelnut ban is really having a huge impact on many vendors around Port Moresby - they have to go into hiding now to sell betelnut in the city. The National Capital District police will be on the lookout for these types of vendors and they can fine them instantly, three hundred kina, if they're found to be selling betelnut. And of course, a lot of vendors don't have that sort of money on them or at all, so they just get taken down to the police station. I asked a vendor if the price of betelnut has changed.
VENDOR: One buai costs two kina. Before the ban it was fifty toea, or thirty or twenty toea.
Jimmy says for those vendors who persist with selling betelnut undercover, it's a risky business.
JIMMY: The betelnut, it's making a lot of money. But the police they are not doing their duties right There's a lot of rogue policemen around. They're taking bribery here and there and doing all kinds of things.
I'm aware on more than one occasion of police officers on the streets with full, betelnut-stained mouths. It's not just the role of police that is sometimes compromised by the ban. Various ground reports indicate that groups of young men from the city's settlements have been unofficially tasked by the National Capital District administration to enforce the ban, creating conditions for potential urban tensions in the multi-ethnic hotbed that is Port Moresby.
Jimmy says despite the crackdown on betelnut, the demand for buai will not subside.
JIMMY: This ban on betelnut is causing inconvenience for the people. All these days, people are going up there to get betelnut. There seems to be a blockage because police are doing their roadblocks, stopping travellers from coming in. So I think, last year until now, many people have died because of betelnut.
It was always anticipated that there'd be teething problems with banning betelnut in public. It's unclear whether the ban has helped mitigate some of the harmful oral health impacts from chewing. However, pressure is growing on the NCD administration to re-think how the ban is implemented in order to stop people risking lives getting betelnut to the people.
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