Myanmar's betel chewers swallowing hard at high prices

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It's as vital to life in Myanmar as cheese is to France or tea to Britain. For millions of people in the Southeast Asian country, the day is incomplete without chewing the juicy, teeth-staining parcels of betel leaf wrapped around areca nut and a slake of lime.

But Myanmar's dedicated legions of red-toothed betel nut chewers are now having to swallow hard — at the thought of paying double for what's known as "kun-ya," thanks to extreme weather that has caused a sharp spike in prices of the ingredients for the addictive stimulant.

A severe drought this summer wreaked havoc on betel leaf and areca nut farms, which rely heavily on irrigation. This was followed by violent rainstorms that debilitated the remaining crop.

Nowhere is the poor harvest more greatly felt than in Thanphyuyone, a village where every morning farmers pick mature leaves that are lined inside bamboo baskets and sent to wholesale markets in nearby Yangon, the country's commercial capital.

"Betel farmers usually rely on the water from the village reservoir to grow betel leaves, but as this year brought us drought, we lost a huge amount of betel leaves and there was nothing we could do," said Kyi Lwin, a 42-year-old betel farmer.

The extreme weather variations have been blamed on El Nino, a warming of parts of the Pacific Ocean that changes weather worldwide.

The bright green betel leaves, as large as an adult palm, normally cost $1.80 to $2.50 per kilogram (2.2 pounds). But because of the shortage, the price has gone up nearly four times to 11,000 kyat or $9 per kilogram. That's as much as the daily wage of a construction worker.

"It has only happened this year," said Myo Lin Tun, a seller in the Thirimingalar wholesale market in Yangon.

Chewing of kun-ya goes back centuries in Myanmar. Every village, town and city in the country has small kiosks that usually sell packs of four kun-ya portions for about 10 cents. In Yangon, 25-year-old construction worker Phyo They Paing grumbles that he now gets only half the usual bang for his buck.

"I used to get four packets for 100 kyats and I was happy with that," he says. "But now I just get two. I'm pretty disappointed with that."

The betel leaf is wrapped around a mixture of areca nuts, lime, spices and sometimes tobacco. Aficionados chew them throughout the day, filling their mouths with a red sludge of betel juice and saliva that they dispose of with abandon in the open. Great red streams of the juice line sidewalks, bus stops, walls, public restrooms and everywhere else.

What's left are teeth and gums stained red.

A recent Health Ministry and World Health Organization survey showed that 62 percent of men and 24 percent of women in Myanmar use smokeless tobacco products such as kun-ya, carrying a serious risk of oral cancer.

Many who sport the giveaway red teeth are bus, truck and taxi drivers who say its stimulant quality helps them stay alert.

Last month, the government issued an order instructing all employees not to chew betel during office hours and not to allow betel vendors inside government facilities.


Htusan reported from Yangon.