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John Roughan: The Betel Nut Sellers Crisis!

The Betel Nut Sellers Crisis!

John Roughan
30 November 2004

Last Friday's Star's front page headline upset many! Imagine sentencing a woman to six months prison for selling betel nut on Honiara's streets. Of course it was not the first time this particular lady had been arrested, charged, fined and warned by the magistrate. Soon after, however, she could be found selling betel nuts along Honiara's streets although being warned against it time and time again. I'm sure the magistrate was at his wit's end. No amount of scolding, warnings and prison threats made a difference. She returned again and again to the streets to sell betel nut. Something has gone terribly wrong here!

There isn't a Honiara street, road, alley way, path, etc. that doesn't have its dozen or so betel nut sellers. KG VI's wretched conditions grow worse daily. Yet, dozens and dozens of men and women continue to sell there and rather than their numbers going down, they're actually increasing. First time Solomons visitors are truly shocked when they pass Betel Nut village across from KG VI as they motor in from Henderson. Must we not now come up with a plan to better balance society's need for betel nut, honour Honiara's by-laws outlawing the practice and assist those who have a desperate need for small amounts of money that betel nut sales earn?

The KG VI site is a partial response to this deep rooted social crisis. The city's poverty levels grow, people reluctantly break the law by selling the nuts, the police and city authorities grow increasingly frustrated and the public's sense of anger smoulders. I doubt that a massive jail sentencing campaign would prove that helpful. What we need is to go back to the drawing board, re-create an atmosphere where the city's most valuable asset, its people, would act as the most effective guardians of the law and at the same time allow modest amounts of money be earned for the betel nut sellers.

Honiara citizens, more than 500 of them by my count, have taken a serious social decision: they willingly build dozens and dozens of illegal betel nut stalls under police noses and take their chance of being arrested. This public flouting of the law presents a dangerous trend to Honiara's well being. The city's continuous dirty and unkempt appearance, dangerous road conditions, kwaso drinking, marijuana use and other urban ills are not unrelated. And the continuous and constant law breaking by betel nut sellers along Honiara's streets sets an unfortunate tone. This conduct in turn worsens many of the city's other weaknesses.

Betel Nut village out at KG VI is not really working! Honiara's streets, if not on Mendana Avenue itself, remains the favourite home to dozens and dozens of illegal sellers. Allow Honiara's different communities choose a couple of places in each area to start up People Service Centres. These service centres would house not only betel nut sellers but food vendors--donuts, cakes, cooked food, coconut drinks.etc.--as well. As in the Town's Central Market, those using these leaf service centres (get rid of the tin stalls, the ugly cardboard throw ups) would pay small daily fees to cover rubbish removal, build toilets and keep the area clean and presentable.

The most important feature of a People Service Centre would be community guardianship. Local groups where the service centre is sited would monitor those selling and who is breaking the city's by laws by selling outside a designated People Service Centre. The community itself would monitor the situation and inform authorities when betel nut sales outside the special centre take place. This same community would also insure that foods sold in such centres follow minimum health standards as well.

These thoughts should be read as the beginning of a public discussion about our growing social crisis. Rather than letting it get out of hand the more, let's put heads together, discuss different plans but especially engage the whole of Honiara's good people to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. The betel nut story could well turn out to be a win-win situation for the whole town!


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