Friday, July 15, 2016

Myanmar - Betel farmers fear impact of health campaign

Betel farmers are deeply worried that the government’s ban on the sale of betel quids in public places will threaten their jobs and their traditions.

A decision last month to ban sales of betel near hospitals, schools, government offices and tourist attractions – effectively separating the country’s thousands of betel sellers from many of their customers – could destroy their livelihood, they say.

The ban is just the first step in a Ministry of Health and Sports campaign to reduce the use of betel, which raises the risk of oral cancer.

Farmer U Aye Oo, who lives in Hinthada township, Ayeyarwady Region, said he was at his wit’s end following the news. “For them it is just about releasing a statement, but for us it is a question of the survival of our family. What are we supposed to do now? Betel is all I grow,” he said.

“We’ve been farming betel since my grandparents’ time. And people have been chewing it since the days of the kings. The government can take action against people who spit on the ground, but closing down shops is no solution. This is our livelihood, and the livelihood of lots of farmers in Hinthada and Pantanaw townships,” he said.

Nyaungdon township betel farmer U Thein Naing said there are betel shops in every street in every township in the country. The impact of the new policy would be “huge”, and the government should have consulted widely before introducing it, he said.

Others believe the new edict will be ignored, and the government will be forced to listen to the people. “They will come up with a better solution,” said Yankin township taxi driver U Maung Maung.

“This is not a small matter. Myanmar people are used to chewing betel. It’s a big business,” he said, conceding that people guilty of “undisciplined expectoration” should be sanctioned.

Yangon is home to thousands of betel stalls, said one owner, Ko Myat Thu. “What will the government do if they all go bust?” he said. “Whole families depend on this industry. And what about the customers?”

Betel quid sold locally is a mixture of betel and ingredients such as lime and tobacco. Imported finished products from India are also common. Vendors say they are not worried about the future of the betel business, claiming interest in their products is stronger than ever.

Betel shops are a common sight in every village and city across the country. Most retailers are small-scale shops that only sell betel, though sometimes they also sell other products like cigarettes and snacks.

Betel quid sellers and betel leaf wholesale dealers said they have not received word from the government, but that if the announcement is made law they will obey it.

“We will obey the law, but it will not happen easily because half of the population eats betel quid. It will take time. If we go out of business, we will find new work,” said Ko Than Aung, a wholesale dealer at Thiri Mingalar Market.

Myat Noe Oo

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