© 2013 Erich Pacheco

Betel Juice Exists, but It’s Not What You Think

Today, I’ve been in Papua New Guinea for a full three weeks. I have comfortably acclimatized to my day to day life and routine. Slowly but steadily, I’ve been learning about the cultures of this fascinating place. Upon arrival, one of the first things I noticed was the redness in people’s gums and teeth. It turns out locals have an obsession with betel nut, a mild stimulant that is chewed with powdered limestone and mustard seed. This concoction cannot be swallowed, so it seeing people spitting swaths of red is a common sight. As a consequence, stains from “betel juice” (the red spit) are ubiquitous on the streets. If people are in meetings or areas where they cannot spit (such as in a plane), they will politely spit into a plastic bottle. Tobacco is one of the most prolific crops in PNG, so there is no lack of smokers here. While there are cigarettes, most locals prefer the traditionally rolled cigarettes: very long and thinly rolled tobacco leaves in newspaper. The relationships between clans is fascinating. In this country of about 6 million inhabitants, there are over 800 languages (the most in the world), so across clans people speak to each other in Tok Pissin (pidgin). Tok Pissin is a mix of English, German, and local languages. Tok Ples is the umbrella term used to describe the different local languages, which change from village to village, and are often spoken by no more than 10,000 people. All land is privately owned by clans and subclans, and there may be more than one clan in a village. These people have battled for thousands of years to reach to today’s permeable boundaries, which are sometimes subject to dispute. Migration is not possible, since it is not possible to buy or sell land. In this context sustainable coastal management is an imperative. And, most clans are rather conscious of this fact, for which they establish protected areas to allow ecosystems to recover. While people may lack material wealth, they are some of the wealthiest people in terms of natural resources. Thus far, food and water security are not an issue here, as there seems to be an abundance of resources. However, this situation may change rapidly as local populations continue to grow and global climate changes. Most rural areas in PNG can only be reached by small aircraft, so in many ways, rural communities remain largely unspoiled by the outside world. Well that is beside Lutherans. Since the beginning of the 20th century, Lutheran missionaries have been indoctrinating locals with their religion, converting most of the population. Today, PNG’s population is very religious and conservative, many villages have even implemented Christian law as the law of the land. Of course, this is not as strict as it may sound. Christianity is always blended with animist beliefs and witchcraft.


Lae is not really a fun city. There just isn’t much to do here. Last Saturday at 6 am I met a group of local expatriates at the local golf club (yes there is a very expensive golf club!) to go on a 10K run around town. Unlike any other 10K I’ve ran before, we were accompanied by a security escort. Later that day, my roommate Mikal took me to the rainforest habitat, which is on the grounds of the local university, UNITEC. There, I had the opportunity to see some of PNG’s amazing fauna and flora. I got to see crested pigeons, birds of paradise, crocodiles, tree kangaroos, eagles, and cassowaries (an ostrich like, but colorful bird). The university is ample and very green. Its buildings proudly display traditional paintings and crafts, although it is clear that maintenance has not been a priority. There aren’t many restaurants in town, but there are a few overpriced Chinese and Philippine restaurants. Last Sunday we decided to try them both, and for lunch ordered every dish in the menu. Needless to say, it was a feast!

IMG_0527If you are interested in PNG music, this songs is the biggest hit in the radio right now JOKEMA – Morobe Feeling – YouTube. I actually seldom listen to local radio, as my short wave radio is perpetually tuned to the BBC World Service, which has come to the rescue yet again. It also gives me a break from Australian based news. PNG was an Australian colony until 1975, so their influence is still felt in everyday life. In fact, just last week there was a big Rugby game between two Australian states, and it seemed as if everyone had a team to root for. I could even hear people cheer when their team scored.

In just three weeks I managed to finish the research proposal and the household surveys. Not too shabby. After much discussion with my colleagues, we decided not to conduct a contingent valuation as we felt that the context was not appropriate for this type of study. Therefore, our final model will not include non-use values of ecosystems in the coastal zone. We determined that to make the study scientifically sound, we have to survey at least 231 households in the area. So, I will be working with two field research assistants that will conduct the surveys in Tok Pissin. Our survey, however, is quite long, meaning that for every respondent, I will have to enter all the data manually into the database; not so fun. I am, however, looking forward to the data analysis process as this is what will reveal what I came here to do. My colleagues have been extremely helpful in this process. The TKCP staff is very professional and competent, so I am very fortunate to be surrounded by these amazing people.

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