The betel nut trade in Papua New Guinea (PNG) is big business. In betel nut marketplaces, money is said to ‘flow’ and to ‘overflow’. It is also highly visible. Wholesale traders openly hold, perhaps flaunt, large wads of cash – the returns from their long-distance travels in search of betel nut, their ‘green gold’.
Betel nut is a legal everyday stimulant today consumed widely throughout PNG. Chewing betel nut involves three ingredients: the betel nut itself (Areca catechu), betel pepper (Piper betle), and slaked lime (calcium hydroxide).
Betel nut is by far the country’s most important domestically marketed crop. Over 40% of households in PNG earn some income from the sale of betel nut Over 40% of households in PNG earn some income from the sale of betel nut . And in terms of the money it puts in people’s pockets and string bags, it is a rival to the major export crops (coffee, oil palm and cocoa). Despite its importance to livelihoods, the trade is regularly overlooked and under-valued by policy makers, or ignored because of the health implications – betel nut is about as good for you as a cigarette.
Betel nut and betel pepper grow widely throughout the lowlands and coastal areas of the country. There, betel nut has long been both an everyday drug and a substance of great cultural significance. It is used to welcome visitors and placate enemies. It features in cosmology and is used in various rituals. As urban areas have grown, and increasing numbers of people in the highlands have taken up chewing, betel nut has also emerged as an important commodity.
Since the 1980s, a large scale and long-distance trade has emerged to supply the highlands’ growing population of betel nut chewers. The key actors in this trade are wholesale traders who are overwhelmingly from the highlands. Banking services are limited, so the traders generally travel to the lowlands with large wads of cash stuffed down their underpants, and in groups for security. They buy betel nut in marketplaces in the coastal urban centres. They also travel into rural areas, often very remote, to buy in production areas.
(Source: R. M. Bourke and T. Sharp.)
For many rural Papua New Guineans, the low prices for their cocoa and copra, and the high costs of transport, offer little incentive to transport these crops for sale. In betel nut producing areas, visits from betel nut traders contribute much needed cash incomes into areas with otherwise poor market access.
Traders seek out more distant and untapped production areas where betel nut can be purchased more cheaply, but in buying at the producers’ ‘house door’ they also seek out enduring relationships. A regular and trusted supply is more desirable than a cheap price.
Traders are keenly aware of the need to source quality betel nut, and they check their purchases carefully. Discerning chewers mean that poor quality betel nut can be difficult to move in the highland marketplaces. And the cost of transport means a trader transporting low quality betel nut can easily lose money.
Once traders have purchased their betel nut, and it has been packed into bags, they need to move it as quickly as possible – fresh betel nut fetches a better price in the highland marketplaces. PNG’s road network is highly fragmented, so initially the bags of betel nut are loaded onto dugout canoes, dinghies, boats and ships.
Once it reaches the road network which connects to the highlands, the betel nut is loaded into minivans and small buses. These vehicles travel overnight up the Highlands Highway.
Significant risk is associated with travel. Many traders have lost small fortunes as their betel nut rotted on the wharf waiting for a ship. Canoes and dinghies are frequently overloaded so that the water laps at the gunwales. Occasionally they capsize, and cargo is lost to the depths. It is also common to hear of betel nut traders lost at sea or drowned. Vehicles, groaning under the weight of their load, travelling at high speed and on poor quality roads, have also claimed the lives of many traders. Many traders also have tales of frightening hold-ups.
But despite the risks, the lure of ‘green gold’ is strong. For some, trading betel nut can be very lucrative. People often remark that betel nut trading offers a ‘one day fortnight’ – that is, the ability to earn the equivalent of a fortnight’s salary in a single day. One successful betel nut trader, Margret, explained why her husband left his teaching job in order to trade betel nut with her:
‘We saw that with teaching we would wait for the payday for money … each fortnight we would get K300 or K400–500. With betel nut and betel pepper we have money every day … some thousands. We carry cash around. We go to sleep and wake up with money.’
After a night on the road, the traders arrive in the major highland marketplaces, somewhat bleary eyed, just as the sun is rising. Sometimes they arrive to an oversupplied market, and at these times the traders may struggle to even recover the costs of the trip. But if they have timed their movements well, and with a little luck, they arrive in an undersupplied market; the traders’ vehicles are surrounded by crowds of people, money held aloft, in a desperate attempt to secure betel nut to resell.
On days like this, traders can make large profits, often doubling their money. The adventure, risks, and potential rewards of trading make the life of a trader as addictive as the stimulant itself. As one trader explained: ‘‘it gets in your blood and makes it hard to give up.’’
AUTHORED BY: Timothy Sharp
PHOTO CREDITS: Timothy Sharp
Tim Sharp is a research fellow in Geography, Curtin University. His PhD research examined the betel nut trade into the PNG highlands. Parts of the research is published in the following links:
(2013). Sharp, T. Baias, bisnis, and betel nut: The place of traders in the making of a Melanesian market. Research in Economic Anthropology 33, pp 227-256.
(2016). Sharp, T. Trade’s value: Relational transactions in the Papua New Guinea betel nut trade. Oceania 86(1), pp 75-91.