Saturday, 1 December 2012

Village Living: Cash Economies

Young boy climbing a buai palm
One afternoon our wasbrata (brother) came home from school and asked for money for the school picnic. Cash is not something that the family keeps much of but the solution was straightforward. Our brother and sister went down the hill to the family buai (betel nut) plantation. He climbed the thin palm trees, threw bunches of buai down to his sister and she put them in bags to take to market the next day.

People and buai loaded onto a PMV
The following day we went with our was susa (sister) to the market. We piled onto the PMV (Public Motor Vehicle) with all the others bound for the market plus their produce. It was cramped. Before we even got off the PMV at the market, the bargaining had begun. Teams of men had come down from the Highlands to buy bulk buai to take home and resell. Although the Highlanders are bigger and fiercer than the coastal people, our sister was taking no nonsense from them and bargained hard. As the men bought the bunches of buai they would gather, strip the nuts from the branches, put them into sacks and sew them shut once full. Once all our sister’s buai was sold, we caught another PMV into town to buy store goods (rice, tinned meat, milk powder and a cream bun) then back home with the rest of the cash to give our brother for his school picnic.

Loaded PMV going to market
Buai, or betel nut, is a mild stimulant when chewed with lime and ‘mustard’ (not what we think of as mustard in Aus). These three combine to a red paste which people then spit out, resulting in bright red spatters on the ground and a high incidence of mouth cancer in the country. It only grows at lower altitudes and the trade with the highlands was the primary income for the family we lived with. Other cash crops were cocoa and coffee…feeding the stimulating addictions of the west rather than their own addiction.

Selling bulk buai at the market
It saddens me that the cash economies of this country seem to be tied to addiction. Sugar, tobacco and natural gas are other exports, each of which is addictive in its own way. Most of it is feeding the addictions of the culture I am from. Yet this is the cash which families put into education or into nutrition (the protein of tinned meat, not the cream bun!). A big LNG project is driving the economy and enabling the government to promise free education, better roads and better healthcare. Surely these are good things, but at what cost? There is no simple answer, but it is interesting to be observing  the grassroots level of production and cash return. It is good to ask the questions, even if I do not have answers. 


  1. Interesting indeed- I initially find myself thinking 'they shouldn't have to rely on a cash economy or produce 'luxury' goods for Westerners', but then again, we can't deny them the education, healthcare and amenities they want and need, like everyone else.

    Oh, and a question for you- do they really need to buy tinned, processed meat? From my anthropology days, I recall all the PNG people keeping pigs and so having a constant supply of fresh meat (and wealth)- or does that differ between areas?

  2. Every area is different. One coastal area I was in was known for being protein rich: wallabies and wild pigs to hunt, fish, crabs and shellfish to catch. Not far along the coast, the environment was different and the diet protein poor.
    Pigs are part of PNG life, but they take a long time to raise and provide a lot of meat for a short space of time (no refrigeration!). They are also an indication of wealth, so you don;t want to eat all your status at once. For all the village chickens, I rarely saw people eating eggs.
    As for tinned meat, I wish no one ate it. I really struggle to get it down, but must do so with a smile as people have spent their money to buy it.