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Loss of life & corruption: The buai ban needs urgent reappraisal


An entry in the Crocodile Prize
PNG Chamber of Mines & Petroleum
Award for Essays & Journalism

THE killing by police of two Hanuabada men last Friday and the earlier death of an underprivileged mother last year warrants a strong response from the Papua New Guinea government.

A responsible government would have responded much sooner after widespread reports of appalling human rights abuse and confrontation as a result of the ban on betel nut (buai) selling.

Instead the government turned a blind eye to the issue hoping that people would toe the line when the ban came into force.

But the opposite was true and, since the ban was enforced several people have lost their lives and a blackmarket has thrived.

The government’s action to address the issue after the loss of several lives is unacceptable. If it had been proactive, those precious lives would not have been lost.

It is clear that betel nut has a place in PNG and any attempt to stop its trade or consumption will not be easy.

The public is now asking how much sacrifice of human life will it take before the government pays attention to the issue and recognises the detrimental and fatal nature of the buai ban.

The deaths have made the government realise that the imposition of the ban is a big problem. If respective authorities in other provinces want to follow the course undertaken in the National Capital District, there will be a national crisis.

Betel nut is so widely consumed that it needs its own policy to be properly developed into an industry. It has significant potential to become an exportable commodity for PNG.

Betel nut could be exported to Australia’s north where the bulk of PNG’s Australian population resides and eventually to other countries.

With a massive domestic market, though, it continues to support Papua New Guineans who depend on its trade to make a living. Its high weighting on the consumer price index shows that it is widely consumed in PNG and its chewers range across politicians, educated elites and villagers.

The unfortunate deaths relating to reckless behaviour of members of the police force provide a clear message that the time has come for the government to develop a buai policy and give the informal economy the attention it deserves.

The imposition of the ban is out of control when police and city rangers use it to wreak havoc on all forms of informal economic activities.

As a result, many mothers - who sell ice blocks, cordial, cooked food and second hand clothing - are constantly made to suffer. And when mothers suffer in PNG, the whole family follows suit.

The law was meant to deal with betel nut and not all forms of informal economic activity but experience on the ground tells us otherwise.

Mothers are now operating in fear and under duress which is totally against their constitutional rights.

The Informal Sector Development & Control Act, although a landmark law, has been deliberately ignored by city and town authorities since its inception in 2004.

The law is under review by the Constitutional Law Reform Commission but will need the government’s support so a massive nationwide civic awareness exercise is undertaken to make our people, as well as the administering and enforcement agencies, understand their roles and functions when dealing with issues relating to the informal economy. 

However, the review process has been given inadequate attention by the government and, as a result, consultation has covered only 10 provinces.

If given sufficient resources, consultation would have covered 90% of the country given the broad nature of the issue.  Given what is happening with the buai ban in NCD, the government needs to make it its priority to support the review and quickly endorse its recommendations even if it means introducing new law.

At the policy level, the National Informal Economy Policy addresses issues relating to the informal economy. Although it does not specifically address the buai issue, it does talk about the importance of providing adequate facilities to ensure vendors are able to sell their produce.

It also stresses the importance of government having in place an appropriate law and order regime to enforce rules and regulation.

Furthermore, it advocates financial inclusion and financial literacy which are important ingredients to help informal economy participants develop a savings culture that will help them transit to the SME (small to medium-sized enterprise) sector. 

What was missing from the day one with the buai ban was the lack of commonsense in dealing with the issue. Banning betel nut should not be looked at as a long term solution but rather an attempt to find a long term solution.

The ban should yield results and experiences that progressively help government come up with a long term strategy to address the problem.

Time and again it has been shown that banning addictive substance such as betel nut and alcohol does not work and only leads to more problems such as smuggling.  

When law enforcers take advantage of their power and create a systematic monopoly it defeats the purpose of the ban. When businessmen get into the act and create a distribution cartel, the ban loses its meaning and instead becomes a tool to facilitate widespread corruption.

The buai ban has shown that police officers are actively involved in smuggling bags of betel nut into the city to the delight of the betel nut chewing public in Port Moresby. Subsequently, betel nut is still widely visible in the national capital.

In addressing the betel nut issue, the government needs to start consulting with affected parties through forums and other forms of dialogue to get feedback and ideas.

Through this approach it can accomplish one thing that was missing when the law was imposed, which is ownership. Ownership in this sense can only be achieved when all affected parties sit down together and devise a way forward. 


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Michael Dom

The problem with betelnut filth is poor parenting of children and self.

Ol mama papa ino save skulim ol pikinini long lukautim rabis blong ol.

Na tu ol man meri ino save tingting gut long tromoi pipia long rabis ples.

Em nau PNG, mekim nating nambaut.

John Kaupa Kamasua

Baka has a point there. If all the chewers and sellers of the betel nut took care of their rubbish, the buai ban policy would have been unnecessary in the first place.

Yet tactics used by those policing the ban, especially the police, must still be questioned in some respects.

I think the recent incident resulting in the loss of two lives have thrown so many other issues into the air for lawmakers and policy people to juggle with.

Our underlying problem, which is the core to others, is that we have just too many people who are unemployed, illiterate and depend on the informal sector for their sustenance.

That is a big policy issue in itself.

Cannot be wished away, or pushed under the carpet.

Busa Jeremiah Wenogo

Clearly from the discussion thus far there are problems on the demand and supply side of the betel nut issue.

On the demand side we are really concerned about the spittle from the chewing of the betel nut that is said to contribute to the spread of illnesses such as TB, defacing of public property and littering.

On the supply side it is really about awareness and having the appropriate law and order regime (such as trained inspectors) in place to enforce the laws and regulations within the "true spirit" of the law.

This is the reason why it is very important that from the outset there is a need for consultation to take place prior to the introduction of the ban so that such issues can be ironed out and a solution that attains some sort of a middle ground is found.

There is no question that in such an exercise people will tend to agree and disagree on some key issues like what has been generated in this forum but at the end of the day whatever policy or measures that authorities such as NCDC desire to undertake, it should at least be generated from such a forum.

It is better to give an opportunity to those who will be affected by such laws as the buai ban to voice their concerns rather than forcefully enforcing these laws on them. When this happens the ban can be seen as a "draconian" measure.

It is also important to note that ban should not be seen as a long term measure because the experiences on the ground indicates that it is not working.

Even if it is allowed to stay there is no guarantee that it will be improved. The ban is being enforced at the interest of those corrupt enforcers at the expense of tax payers like you and me.

Millions of kina have been spent thus far and I am wondering whether it is worth the money.Yes it has led to the city being clean but does it have to come at the cost of millions of kina?

Even while the ban is in force vendors can be seen selling betel nut all over the city. Furthermore, the imposition of the ban has penalised other non-buai informal economic activities such as selling of cook foods and drinks, second hand clothing, garden produce etc that contribute less to littering in the city.

This has made me to ponder whether the enforcers are enforcing some other laws that we are not made aware of. What about the Informal Sector Development & Control Act 2004? There are clear provisions in the law that talks about achieving minimum standards in the conduct of different informal economic activities (betelnut included). Has it been deliberated by-passed? This is my concern.

I am for the ban only if it leads to a cleaner city at a reasonable cost with vendors able to sell their betel nut at strategic sites/areas to make ends meet.

However, once it is facilitating smuggling activities and resulting in deaths then the logical thing to do is to immediately review the policy and try to find out what would be the ideal way forward.

We are now at the critical stage of the ban policy where the authority in charge will have to way the costs against the benefits.

Clearly the loss of several human lives indicates that the cost incurred in enforcing the ban far outweighs the benefit (cleaner city).

I believe the writing is on the wall and we all know what needs to be done from here on.

Baka Bina

I see a very different city now that the buai ban is in place. Do I want it to go back to what it was like before? No. The use of force (rough tactics by rangers and police) has become unfortunately necessary. The litter generated around the sale and marketing of buai is very hard to comprehend. You can tell a place from a mile off that buai is traded and chewed by the rubbish and spittle.
It is unfortunate that the police had to use guns and I agree that it does not equate guns to be fired indiscriminately. In the HB village case, it was the attack on the police who I would presume would have fired to disperse the crowd and I do not want to be apologetic for the policemen here. They surely must have been taught to fire into the air and not at people unless it is rubber bullets but that is also lethal at close range.
The buai ban was to create a cleaner city. What is necessary is for both the chewers and the vendors to take pride in the industry by taking care of the rubbish. Each individual person should take that small effort to put their rubbish in the bins provided and spittle should be put in plastic bags and into the rubbish bin.
You have very big cities with huge populations looking after their city by each person being responsible. Governor Parkop may be doing it wrong so is all those myriads of us who want to be disrespectful of ourselves and our intelligence to put the rubbish in the right place. We are too lazy to take that few extra steps to the bin so we have people like Powes Parkop who has to do something and he does that but it crumbles all around him. The Aborigines has this saying that you put crabs in a bucket and when one of them tries to escape by going over the top, another will always pull it back into the bucket so none of them ever escape. This seems to be true of indigenous communities and PNG is one big indigenous country. Is there any lesson in this for us? Governor Parkop offers us a schema of things to get us out of the bucket to have a clean city and we are content to live like what it was like before so we carry on with things that challenges this notion of a cleaner city.
Chewing buai is not the problem, I think, it is the rubbish and spittle that each one of us should talk, discuss and take that extra step to do the right thing and dispose of it in the right place, the bin, that will stop the governor from standing fast to his buai ban. If each indivdual peson acts responsible on the issue of rubbish, the people of Central and Gulf will not have any problem supplying the city with all their buai.
I am a highlander and regrettably, it is us who have this attitude to make the fast buck and leave the others to clean up our mess. It cannot be the other vendors as they too want to make a fast buck. So nobody get to clean up the mess and we have huge piles of festering rubbish. The vendors don't care for this and the rest is all left to imagination. Examples of this is not far off. You go to Goroka to the World Trade Centre and yes it has a world reputation for the yuckiest WTC and Mt Hagen and see the buai markets there and It will turn your stomachs.
There should be a lesson that we all can learn from this unfortunate incident but the main one I think is for us all to act responsible to 'pick it up and put it in a bin. This is stop the unnecessary harassment and unfortunate deaths.

John Kaupa Kamasua

The shooting of two young men from Hanuabada village in the nation’s capital last week is another nail in the coffin against efforts and concerns to improve the image of the police force.

When the news flashed on our television screen in my house, I sank my head into my arms, and agonised over not only the deaths themselves but the implications from them.

What have we got ourselves into? Is this further proof of the country falling deeper into chaos?

Two weeks earlier another man was shot and drowned at Tatana village in relation to the murder of a former journalist, and a consultant to landowners.

While police claim that he was shot when he resisted arrest and tried to swim away, the relatives and community members at Tatana are saying otherwise.

A couple of weeks prior to these shootings, police shot dead a young mother in Lae. Her vehicle was involved in a car chase, but instead of making her to stop or finding out why, those giving chase fired shots. One bullet killed her instantly.

In response the Motu-Koita people have blocked road access to Hanuabada and Tatana. These road blocks have affected services such as power and fuel supply to the city.

PNG Power is now doing load shedding of electricity while today most of the fuel depots in the city were closed as all reserve fuel was exhausted.

I stood in line at Erima fuel station for almost three hours in the sun and heat to get a K50 worth of fuel. Many black markets sprang up overnight, with those with fuel to sell putting their prices up to 50% of the normal price.

Only yesterday (Wednesday), the road blocks were removed allowing vital fuel for road and air transport to be delivered.

The people have demanded K22 million from the government for the death of the two men, and another K2 million for the injuries to others.

Investigations into the deaths will commence early next month.

Any deaths at the hands of law enforcement agents that could have been avoided are a tragedy. The lives lost will never be replaced, and the families of the deceased are left to pick up the pieces and move on, for no fault of their own.

These deaths will become mere statistics as long as the country brags about them long enough, then drops the issue.

PNG has a serious issue with the police force. The government, police force, and law makers need to act fast to reverse a very dangerous trend!

Rules of engagement, training, discipline for conducts of police officers need revisiting. It needs a complete overhaul.

It is time to begin efforts to professionalise and modernize the police force, or we can say good bye to a lot of the things that citizens of a democratic and Christian country should enjoy.

I know of policeman who are career minded, well-drilled, and who could not have done what some of the officers dished out to the public.

We keep saying that police are supposed to protect lives and properties, and maintain the rules of law, but after strings of death from the barrel of guns wielded by police, all that do not sound any forceful enough.

Yet, the irony here is that we still need the police, and we need them more than ever before when the country is going through some dramatic social and economic changes. The challenges that are before us for nation building requires a strong and disciplined police force.

Government agents while dispensing their official duties should be mindful of the collateral damage their actions might cause. If we antagonize people and make them more territorial, we should not expect them to adhere to the laws all the time.

Busa Jeremiah Wenogo

The claim that the trade of betel nut selling is a lazy way of earning a living is an unfair call.

I believe those buai traders are reacting to a market demand for the stimulant. Demand is always the pre-requisite to supply.

The supply chain from the producers, distributors and retailers is pretty well advanced even though it is conducted informally.

Buai trade is the only home grown economic activity that seems to have a successful supply chain compared to all other cash crops. Thus, more money is kept within the country than going offshore.

Being less technically complex, the betel nut trade has been able to provide most of the poor, unskilled and unemployed populous with the opportunity to make a living in challenging environments like Port Moresby and Lae.

We have to recognise that successive governments over the years have not been able to create adequate alternative income earning opportunities or formal sector jobs to absorb these people who are thriving on the trade of betel nut.

Not only that but development in a sense has come all too quickly for our people who are plagued with a very poor illiteracy rate and still making their way out of their traditional societies.

Therefore, what is happening with the betel nut issue reflects the broader development issues that our government faces.

Unlike the past, most buai vendors or traders at present are educated individuals who one would expect to be behaving and doing things differently compared to a "kanaka".

Their active involvement in the buai trading sector indicates the underlying problem of unemployment, under-employment and poverty.

As the rich are getting richer at the expense of the bulk of the people, the neglected poor or unemployed will get into any business venture or trade that can help them make a decent living.

Not only that but people who are engaged within the formal sector are also using betel nut trade to supplement their income (wages/salaries) which is everyday losing its "real purchasing power" because of the exponential and never-ending inflation increase.

Unfortunately, lives have been lost and will be lost as a result of the buai trade but that can be addressed once the government develops a proper policy on buai rather than taking measures that will only be exacerbating the problem.

I am certainly for the ban but I don't see it as a long term measure. The ban should provide relevant authorities such as NCDC insights into developing appropriate long term solutions and strategies whose net benefits will be for the betterment of all.

Apart from the loss of lives, so much money - in the vicinity of millions - has been spent to enforce the ban. And yet buai is visible all over Port Moresby.

Something is definitely not right and I believe a review of the ban is needed to map out a best way forward based on the experience thus far.

Phil Fitzpatrick

The ban has effectively shifted the sale of betel nut from the informal economy to the criminal economy - just what happened to alcohol during the prohibition years in the USA.

What is more sensible is going after the users and their filthy habits of spitting anywhere and littering by throwing away the rind of the nuts.

In 1967 when I was in Mount Hagen there was a problem, especially around shops and trade stores, of people hawking up great gobs of phlegm all over the place.

Why they did this I'm not sure but it was perceived as a health risk and some obscure section of the Police Offences Act was used to stop the practise. A similar thing applied to people's proclivity to urinate and defecate wherever they felt like it.

The fines really hurt and people took great delight in dobbing in their friends. As a local court magistrate it was driving me to distraction but it was effective and people stopped spitting everywhere.

At the same time littering laws were also enforced, particularly in the towns, and fines issued.

When you visit PNG these days the amount of litter and rubbish everywhere is appalling. Tourists must regard Papua New Guineans as one of the most filthy and disgusting people on the planet. In this sense I can understand the motivations behind the buai ban.

If the trade was controlled better, as suggested in Busa's article, and the users targeted using littering and health laws there would be no need for the violence of the police and city rangers.

Littering fines are also a good source of revenue, whereas the ban is costly to administer.

Okuk Mori Rogerson | via Facebook

I am joining others in NCD & PNG in asking Gov Powes Parkop to resign as Governor of NCD. The main reasons for this call are:

1. The disastrous "Buai Ban Policy," which is depriving our rural folks of their only form of income and the loss of lives directly related to this ill conceived policy.

2. There has been so many inflated and prolonged contracts in NCD and Gov Parkop has kept mum on this.

3. Gov Parkop has no real jobs policy since talking office 10 years ago and has a result he missed the golden opportunity as 10 years of boom slipped by.

One thing people must realize is that Port Moresby is one of the most expensive cities to live in, in the world. So many workers in the formal sector/formal economy make ends meet by borrowing from the people in the informal sector.

Most of these participants in the informal economy depend on betel nut trade to survive. So for a governor who claims to have a million ideas to simply cut of this major economic lifeline of the informal economy is criminal and anti PNG.

Better to have a 10 point plan which works than a millions ideas that have not delivered much in almost 10 years.

Michael Dom

Wow. A hard nut response Corney.

That might be hard to chew.

And red will flow from one source or another.

Corney Korokan Alone

Buai selling and trading is really a lazy men/women's business. Its filth, opportunity costs (plus decades of opportunities lost) and budgetary costs to maintain some level of decency are incalculable.

We sympathise with the loss of lives. By the same token one has to understand that there is no official sanction from the NCDC for law enforcers to kill others.

We must also be mindful that there have been a good number of lives lost at sea and on rivers in the course of this so-called buai business.

Trying to make ends meet is not a credible excuse or reason to ply in this trade. This trade has already become a problem and is proving to be a laziness-breeder to society - all across this beautiful country we proudly call home.

We have other potentials and opportunities in this blessed paradise. Our continued nose under this bloody nut will continue to result in bloody noses if re-thinking is not accommodated by the citizenry - not the politicians.

The ban on this nut need not be lifted to appease anyone.
The ban is and will be credited for other benefits (realised and yet to realised) in the years to come.

The cultural excuse of buai is also not cutting deep.
Re-thinking from the buai growing, chewing, ferrying and selling citizenry all over Papua New Guinea is what is really necessary now.

Traim na harim tok na senisim ol giaman pasin na tingting liklik - em, nau mipla go insait pinis lo namba 15 yia lo 21st century ya.

Busa Jeremiah Wenogo

Mathias thanks. And thanks Chris for the insightful comments and suggestions that you put forward.

Definitely awareness can play a big role in commensurately changing the attitude of the people.

I see that one of the important elements that was missing in the ban and generally in addressing issues relating to informal economy is that NCDC has not made an attempt to revive and strengthen their inspectorate function.

Instead they have resorted to engaging youths and reserve police who lack a clear understanding on the relevant laws and therefore the rights of the vendors and their powers.

As a result there have been cases of abuse with reports of deaths the unfortunate outcome.

It is a good initiative to engage unemployed youths to do certain things but it is equally important for the administering authority to train them especially when they are dealing with such a sensitive issue.

Highly trained Inspectors are needed to address these issues. Inspectors can perform their role effectively if NCDC can identify designated sights at strategic locations and stationed inspectors to be responsible for certain areas.

Enforcement unfortunately has always been a problem in PNG given the breakdown in officers adhering to the commands from their hierarchy.

Nevertheless, this can be addressed only when the reserve police starts to think that they are "community patrol officers" with clear limitations of their powers.

The recommendations from the police review report needs to be looked into to better address issues relating to enforcement.

Chris Overland

Any half decent policy adviser could and quite probably did tell the government that, historically, attempts to prohibit the sale and consumption of popular goods and services are doomed to fail.

The slightest knowledge of past and current attempts to ban the sale and consumption of alcohol and illicit drugs should have convinced a wise politician to go down another path.

The consumption of buai is a traditional activity that, while not especially healthy and certainly unattractive, enjoys very wide spread support amongst the PNG public.

Consequently, banning it was always going to encourage a burgeoning black market and wide spread "civil disobedience".

History suggests that instituting various control measures about its sale and use is more likely to pay dividends in the long term.

By implementing a policy of constantly emphasising that the consumption of buai is unhealthy, unattractive and unsophisticated, the government will slowly but surely see its use decline.

This will happen all the faster if chewing buai can effectively be characterised as an activity of "bush kanakas" rather than educated, modern people.

Also, by limiting sales by imposing conditions upon vendors, such as restricting them to certain locations and times, combined with quite severe penalties for chewing and spitting in proscribed public places, the worst public health problems associated with its sale can be ameliorated.

This has been the strategy with tobacco in Australia and elsewhere and it works, albeit very slowly.

Another possible solution is for the government to do the above plus create a complete monopoly on the production, distribution and sale of buai, thus allowing a level of price control plus providing a useful revenue stream as well.

This would be bad news for the informal economy but would probably help limit the level of public disobedience to manageable proportions.

Certainly, shooting people is guaranteed to be totally counter productive to attempts to deal with what is fundamentally a social and public health issue.

Mathias Kin

Bro Wenogo, well written. Hopefully Powes Pakop will read this document.

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