Australia’s salivating miners & PNG revisited

Buai for sale – get your buai here!


BETEL NUT is the name given to the seed of the Areca palm.  Its botanical name is Areca catechu.  It grows in parts of the tropical Pacific, Asia and Africa.

Common names for the nut are adike, buai, fobal, gouvaka, kamuku, mak, paan supari, pinlang, sopari, tambul and tuuffel.

The name betel nut is misleading.  Piper betle is an Asian plant whose leaves are chewed with the areca nut and lime (calcium hydroxide).  It is through this association that the areca nut became known as betel nut.

It is not known where Areca catechu originated.  It may have come from the Philippines or an area near there.  Nearly all of the Areca catechu palms that are now cultivated for the nuts were deliberately planted, although wild palms can still be found growing in Malabar, a region in India between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea.

The palms are cultivated in parts of Arabia, China, East Africa, Egypt, Fiji, Hindustan, Indochina, Madagascar, Malaysia, Maldive Islands, Melanesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Taiwan.

Cultivation is performed using pre-germinated seeds, like coconuts.  The saplings need to grow in the shade because they can be killed by strong sun.  The palms bear fruit when they are 10 – 15 years of age.  A productive palm can provide fruit for up to 75 years.  They are fairly hardy but prone to fungus infection, especially Ganoderma lucidum.

Betel nuts have been used as a drug for thousands of years.  The practice is thought to have started in south-east Asia and there is archaeological evidence to support this view. 

The Spirit Cave site in Thailand yielded palaeo-botanical remains of Areca catechu, lime and Piper betle that were dated between 7,500 – 9,000 years ago.  This makes it one of the earliest known uses of psychoactive substances.

Betel nut also appears in the literature going back many years. Theophrastus described the nut in 430 BC.  It is also mentioned in Sanskrit texts and Chinese records dating from 150 BC.  In Persia there were 30,000 shops that sold betel nut in the capital during the reign of Khosrau (590 – 628).

The custom of betel nut chewing is so common that raising Areca catechu palms for betel nut is a major economic activity.  It is estimated that 20% of the world’s people are users.  In Papua New Guinea betel nut chewing is as widely pursued as it is in India, mainland south-east Asia and Indonesia.

The effects of chewing betel nut can be compared to a mild amphetamine dose.  It also has an appetite suppressing effect.  Chewing produces large amounts of saliva, hence the red splashes you see everywhere it’s used.  In some parts of the world the nut is chewed with psychoactive mushrooms for a bigger hit.

Overuse of betel nut can cause a feeling of intoxication, convulsions, diarrhoea, dizziness and vomiting.  Long term betel nut chewers will eventually develop permanently stained teeth and are prone to mouth cancer.

You can buy betel nut on the Internet.  It is not illegal in the USA and is shipped from there around the world.  In Taiwan, betel nut booths and their scantily clad female sellers line the roads.

Betel nut is a hidden but significant economic aspect of the countries in which it is grown and sold. 

Prices vary considerably, especially with the dried product and ‘health’ concoctions to which it is added.  In China a fake betel nut has been developed and is sold as the legitimate product.

There is a tremendous opportunity in PNG to commercialise betel nut for worldwide sale but there is also a social cost, similar to tobacco, to consider.  However, as the Chinese move in on the market, it seems only a matter of time before this wider commercialisation happens.


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Helen Tabe

Hi All,

Just wondering if anyone knows where I can find myself some Betelnut/ Buai in Darwin?

Linda Ross

Where can I get them in Rockhampton, Queensland?

Greta Kessler | Buai North Queensland

We have plenty of fresh buai and daka available when in season large and small. We also have frozen quantities at times when not in season. Minimum sale quantity is $50. For further information contact 0409 982 722. Looking forward to hear from you.

Lizbert Paraka

Kairuku Hiri MP Peter Isoaimo has filed a Supreme Court reference regarding the Betel Nut Ban Policy and its effect on the Central people.

However, the National Capital District Governor Powes Parkop, who is listed as respondent, is confident of the outcome of the proceedings.

The first hearing was set for October 25, 2016, according to a court order.

With reference to Jama Lawyers lawyer, Tony Noki, one of the lawyers who are working on the case, said more than 50 affidavits have been filed into the reference for the Supreme Court to interpret the policy.

Noki said the policy was unconstitutional and a by-law that cost many lives and brought suffering to Papua New Guineans.

“The policy as affected not only the people of Kiruku-Hiri but every buai sellers and producers in PNG who trade betel nut in NCD and Central Provinces, according to the affidavits."

“It is a national issue and if the National Capital District Commission is found guilty, a good number of claims will be pressed forward to the commission,” said Mr Niko.

Isoaimo said although betelnut was not in the Consumer Price Index, it was a contribution to the country’s economy. Almost 50 per cent of PNG’s population were chewers.

He said a 10 kilogram bag worth K50 wholesale price holds more than 300 betelnut fruits. Retailer than sells each betelnut for K1 and generates a profit of K250.

“If a ten-seater Toyota land cruiser can accommodate 50 bags or a coaster bus with 120 bags, more than K30, 000 will be generated at the end of the day.”

“Many have become successful businessmen, well-qualified, and lives have been sustained through the betelnut money,” the MP said.

“Betelnut is Kiruru-Hiri especially Mekeo’s Gold.”
He added that the recent ban has caused many deaths on land, sea and rivers, injuries, financial constraints, violence and many other difficulties.

Isoaimo said the betelnut growers and sellers have been grieving and have faced hardship fighting with NCD Police just because of a by-law imposed by the NCDC and not by the floor of Parliament.

Governor Parkop told the Post-Courier yesterday that a law that is not passed on by the floor of Parliament does not have to be illegal unless it is a National Law.

“The NCDC, as the city authority, has power to legislate and has the primary responsibility in respect of [Section 41(1) of NCDC Act 2001].”

Parkop stressed that the commission has the authority to control by licensing of mobile traders, sale and distribution of alcoholic liquor, parks and gardens, physical planning, garbage and sanitation other than sewerage, taxation in certain instances, control of littering, control of unlicensed street vending, and control of the sale of betel nut.

He pointed out that the ban does not stop the rights of the Kiruku-Hiri people to supply betelnut yet there were responsibilities which people have to be aware of.

The Governor said if the commission is found guilty, appropriate measures will be taken afterwards.

“It is also regrettable on lives lost during betel nut smuggling hence lives have been lost before the ban too.”

“NCDC’s main focus now will be on penalising the chewers,” Parkop said.

He said visibly, after the ban the city has looked stunningly clean and health.

Governor Parkop added that since the matter was already before the court, it was up to the court to decide.

Daniel Kumbon

Christine, a couple of years ago I met a young Papuan man who had dual citizenship. His father had fought in WW2 and had been allowed to live in Cairns on government pension.

This young man drove me to their house and showed me his betel nut trees in the backyard. He wanted to harvest a bunch for me but I declined his offer because I don't chew.

Try and meet PNGeans who have lived in Cairns for a long time. They will surely know people who grow and maybe sell them too.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I don't know that you can buy betel nuts in Australia Christine.

Daley's Nursery in Kyogle in NSW sells the plants.

Most people seem to buy the powdered betel nut online from Thailand.

It's illegal to import unprocessed nuts into Australia.

Christine Faustina Peter

Where can i buy buai, buatau (betel nut) here in Cairns. Your location taniku bada heraer.

Fake buai,we call it kavivi back in PNG.

Ayn Sunana

Hi all, here in Darwin NT, you can get fresh buai and fresh daka.

Sophie Rabana

Does anyone know where I can buy buai and daka in Brisbane?

Mi die stret long kaikai buai na fresh daka. Plis halivim. Tenk u tru.

Joyce Bagi

We are the ones who abuse it, but whether we like it or not betelnut is here to stay.

This is PNG, asples blo m, husat ba rausim culture blo mi!

Barney Smythe

The lack of buai makes me want to spit...and see red.

I'll give you this, Barney, you're a trier - KJ

Peter Kranz

Interesting footnote. Betelnut husk segments (the bits you peel off to reveal the "meat") are a traditional method for cleaning your teeth - in lieu of a toothbrush.

You rub the ends up and down your teeth and they are a pretty effective cleaning agent.

Tried it - works well.

Peter Kranz

Should have added it's not illegal to import provided it is peeled, washed, frozen, sealed and declared.

Peter Kranz

Jerry - Yes, it's available in Cairns, Brisbane, Darwin and sometimes Sydney. But you have to have the right contacts in the PNG community.

Join your local PNG association. Some students make a bit of extra money importing it - which is not illegal.

They also grow it in north Queensland in a few places.

(Advice from the Boss Meri.)

Jerry Rachiyol

Can anybody tell me where i can buy fresh betel nut and the lime in Australia?

David Kitchnoge

Phil - Thanks for the insights.

This is a commodity well worth pursuing because I can see it making a real difference to PNG's economy the moment it enters our basket of exports.

Buai’s reach in PNG is unrivalled. There is no other commodity in PNG that attracts so much effort and vigour among our masses than buai, and the only missing link now is to find a way to export it.

The opportunities that our humble buai present to our country is quite exciting!

Phil Fitzpatrick

Coffee is an interesting comparison to buai. It tends to be more of a cottage industry in PNG these days but it is still counted as a major export and part of the macro-economy.

I guess there wouldn't be much difference if buai was cultivated for export. Buyers who now collect nuts for resale in Mosbi and the Highlands could also collect it for export.

The danger would be if a big outfit came in and forced the local growers out.

Maybe its time for PNG to think about commercialising its buai. I can see the signs in Taiwan now "Get Your PNG Gold Buai Here". And of course it has medicinal properties worth exploiting.

The Chinese are growing cassava out along the Kemp Welch for bio-fuel. How long will it be before someone cottons on to the potential for buai?

Reginald Renagi

Seeds of the palm are sown in fields.

The palms grow and generally start to bear fruit at about the age of four to eight years.

Flowering starts between November and February in India, or slightly earlier in Bangladesh.

The flowers are mostly wind pollinated, and the fruits take about 8 months to fully ripen.

Each bunch can yield anywhere between 50 and 400 fruits, and each palm can continue to produce fruits for 60 to 100 years.

Betel vine is cultivated on a wooden frame to give it support.

The seeds are harvested every year. Harvesters climb the palms that are in close and regularly spaced plantings.

They cut the bunches, lower them down on a rope and move from one crown to the other.

Another method is to harvest bunches with a knife mounted on a bamboo pole.

The stage of harvesting the seeds depends on the product wanted.

Immature fruits supply 'kalipak', an important form of processed betelnut in India.

These are picked when the fruits are 6-7 months old. For the mature nut product, fruits should be harvested fully ripe.

After harvesting, the fruits are dehusked, either while fresh or after drying, and the whole or sliced nuts are dried in the sun or with artificial heat.

Ripe and almost ripe nuts are left whole or are sliced.

They are sometimes boiled in water, which reduces the tanning content of the nuts, and then dried.

The product is graded on the basis of the ripeness at harvesting and on the colour, shape and size of the nuts.

The most popular form is the dried, ripe, whole nut.

Reginald Renagi

Phil - A very interesting article.

The betelnut palm is widely grown in South Asia, particularly India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, for its stimulating properties.

India is the most important betelnut palm growing country in the world.

Here, the production of betelnuts has increased from 75,000 t in around 1955 to 330,000 t in 2003. Betelnut cultivation in India now covers some 290,000 ha of land.

David Kitchnoge

Phil - If buai is an export commodity then one has to ask why on earth PNG does not know about this?

Someone at our Department of Trade ought to explain to our people why they are not creating opportunities for us to also export our buai.

I understand your point about buai in the context of the cottage industry.

Trouble is buai is not a substitute for any of our current imports unlike other activities such as animal husbandry, sewing etc which create commodities which are substitutes for some of our imports.

Phil Fitzpatrick

The Asian Grocery Store in Hornsby NSW sells a product called GuangXin Article 9 System of Betel Nut ($1.85 for 80gms) which is made in China.

It contains fresh plum, salt, sugar, liqorice, sodium saccharin, molasses, sweet indican, asperbar sweet, citric acid, edible colouring, potassium sorbic acid, sodium benzoate, savory and amrila. Not a skerrick of areca to be seen.

It is 91% carbohydrate with 369.60 calories per 100 grams and is sold as a digestive aid and energiser.

Apart from the USA, Cameroon seems to be a major exporter of Buai (no doubt they grow it in Guinea too).

The idea of a buai chewing gum appeals to me, Poyap.

Phil Fitzpatrick

We've split the comments on buai between two separate articles. This is what Norm Richardson had to say in responses to David's piece.

The buai trade in its economic guise is not insignificant for the subsistence farmer. Without it many families would be unable to feed themselves as well as they do now.

Remember that when the people starve, they become restless and eventually revolt against their rulers.

The more important aspect of the buai trade is the arecaline content of the nut. It is the only naturally available vericide that humans can safely use in Papua New Guinea. There is no 50% kill dose rate for it.

Put more bluntly, it gets rid of the intestinal parasites that everyone would otherwise suffer from in PNG.

The chemical either stuns or kills the gut worms and they are then expelled, leaving the person with a lower parasite load every time they chew some buai.

Without it most humans who live in tropical regions would end up with parasites that reduce individuals to malnurished skeletons, with lower resistance to disease, resulting in early death.

Therefore buai is more valuable than just as a commodity of trade.It is a public health issue that should be supported by the authorities, not condemned.

I rest my case Your Honour.

Phil Fitzpatrick

David Kitchnoge discusses whether buai is a rational economic activity in a separate article and concludes in the negative calling it a valueless micro-economic endeavour for PNG.

Given the huge consumption of the betel nut in the world it has the potential to become a macro-economic export for PNG. It may be that foreign interests will recognise this potential before PNG, which will lose out again.

As a micro-economic activity I think growing and selling buai is important. If you look at the contribution of cottage industries in other countries you will see what I mean.

Giving rural communities small low interest loans to start such industries is a big thing in places like India.

While PNG needs its macro-economic projects it also needs the micro, especially in rural areas.

Getting people to stop spitting the juice all over the place is a good idea; in much of Asia where it is used extensively people keep it to themselves.

Poyap J Rooney

This is a topic that interests me a lot, thank you Phil for your informative article.

Too often, buai chewing is potrayed in a bad light. While theres no doubt some negative aspects of buai chewing, some of these are overstated and ignore it's many possible benefits (socioeconomic and health).

I am a medical doctor and have had many discussions and arguments with my PNG colleagues regarding this.

It seems that the PNG Health Authority's approach (in theory anyway) is to discourage and try to eliminate buai chewing in PNG altogether, similar to the Dutch approach as described by John Conroy.

The issue for buai chewing societies should not be that it is an evil thing that needs to be rid of, rather that it needs to evolve with the times so that it's social-acceptability becomes more universal, perhaps like the cigarette and therefore remain with us as the enhancer of social interactions that it has always been.

Cairns is the only place in Australia that I have observed the regular sales of buai, daka (Mustard stick) and kambang (lime) in the forms that they are chewed PNG.

My concern is that with this we will also import those unsightly aspects of buai chewing to Australia which may result in local authorities stamping down on its sales.

I have experimented with making buai ice-blocks here in Townsville, but that offcourse does not contain the other key ingredients, and therefore lacks the full "buai hit".

Another approach would be to isolate the actual chemical reaction(s) that takes place when all the ingredients are mixed and produce a product that both provides the "buai hit" and is more socially acceptable in a country like Australia and ideally in PNG.

This would be somewhat equivalent to the nicotine patches and chewing gum sold in pharmacies. The commercialisation of such a product would have to take into consideration the actual process and act of chewing buai, which apart from the physiological effect (the "Buai Hit") is itself, I understand is a big part of why people chew.

The successful product may be one that contains the pharmacoactive substance and to some extent replicate the process of chewing, eg package the key ingredients separately.

The research possibilities in this commercialisation process is immense, from chemistry, medical, botanical, social behavioural, to name a few.

An interesting possible medical benefit that buai chewing confers on to the buai chewing bublic is that for many it could be their main source of calcium, and as we all know this is essential for healthy bones and to prevent oesteoporosis.

From my anecdotal observations while working in PNG, oesteopororis was more prevalent in non-chewers than it was among the buia chewing population. (This would be one interesting research topic for someone).

I am very interested to find out more about the "fake" buai that you mentioned is sold in China, are you able to shed a bit more light on this?

John Conroy

In colonial Java in the nineteenth century the chewing of betel nut was widespread.

The Dutch largely eliminated it, whether as a matter of conscious policy I don't know, by the simple expedient of establishing a modern plantation tobacco industry, with the associated manufacturing of cigarettes.

Smoking became almost universal, at least among men. You can make up your own mind whether the cure was worse than the disease.

I think the Dutch may also have succeeded in inculcating some sense of shame in the population of Java, in the sense that showing the obvious signs of being a 'chewer' became less and less acceptable socially.

Nowadays one has to travel to rural areas, off Java, to see any evidence of betel chewing as practiced in PNG, and then only among older people.

Reginald Renagi

Phil - Try the medium ones with mustard only without the lime. The 'buatau' tastes good, mild without getting intoxicated and its better than puffing on the 'cancer sticks' (cigarettes).

Phil Fitzpatrick

Only once, Reg. Wandered around with numb lips for a while and decided it wasn't my style.

Reginald Renagi

Phil - A very interesting article and you ought to be a horticulturist.

"Oi patrol officer Papua dekenai oi noho be 'buatau' (betelnut) danu oi anio or lasi?"

You do get my drift here. But if you still want the 'police-motu' translated in its literal sense, then our 'Moses', the coffee expert can help.

Harry Topham

Phil - Seem to remember that India grows substantial quantities of the pesky nut which when processed is used as a prime ingredient for horse and cattle drenching to remove intestinal parasites.

I always wondered how much kick the dry processed variety must have?

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