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.