Burma’s dedicated legions of red-toothed betel nut chewers are now having to swallow hard at the prospect of paying four times more than usual for their “kun-ya” due to a bad harvest.
A severe drought has wreaked havoc on the farms producing the addictive betel leaf and areca nut, which rely heavily on artificial irrigation. The drought was followed by violent rainstorms that damaged 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 sent to wholesale markets in nearby Yangon, the country’s commercial capital.
Kyi Lwin, 42, said: “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.”
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 leaves, as large as an adult’s palm, normally cost the equivalent of £2.20 per kilo. But because of the shortage, the price has gone up nearly four times – it’s now equal to the daily wage of a construction worker.
Chewing of kun-ya goes back centuries in Burma. Every village, town and city in the country has small kiosks that usually sell packs of four kun-ya portions for a few pence. In Yangon, construction worker Phyo They Paing, 25, grumbles that he now gets only half the usual bang for his buck.
“I used to get more than four packets for 100 kyats [about 5p] and I was happy with that,” he says. “But now I just get two, I’m pretty disappointed.”
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.
A recent Health Ministry and World Health Organisation survey showed 62 per cent of men and 24 per cent of women in Burma use smokeless tobacco products such as kun-ya, which carry 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.