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January 17, 2020

Farmers find switching to betel leaf more profitable


January 17, 2020

HYDERABAD: A worker was chewing fresh betel leaf (paan) while sorting out fresh leaves at a farm in the coastal area of Keti Bunder in Thatta district.

He calls it “sulemani paan” without “chuna katha”, believes the leaves are a mouth refresher, good for controlling hunger, and maintain the digestive system. “That is why many people chew paan after every meal to maintain health,” he said.

The betel farm was filled with activity as workers were grading the product after picking from the garden. Betel leaves have three grades. Once grading is completed, the leaves are packed in five kilogram bags for supply to the market.

Presently, betel leaves are considered a profitable product in the coastal area, especially in Keti Bunder and parts of Ghora Bari and Shah Bunder.

Gulab Shah, a farmer and community activist in Keti Bunder said establishing a betel farm needed a bigger investment, but once that was achieved, farmers earned for the next 35 years, unless some disease damages the crop.

Betel consumes less water, compared to other cash crops and gives higher product, he said, adding that in case of water shortage farmers arranged tankers to feed the small gardens. The crop needed fertile land, canal water and a pleasant weather for cultivation in the area, Shah said. “A major chunk of marine land has already been degraded due to increasing sea intrusion.”

Many of the problems faced by farmers are connected to climate change, including persistent water shortage, weather ups and downs and crop losses in rains, high tides, and increasing warnings of cyclones.

Farmers failed to maintain banana crops due to the acute water shortage in the area, and switched to betel. Betel is an evergreen, perennial climber. The commercial product is the leaf, mainly used for chewing with areca nut, slaked lime, tobacco and some other ingredients. It is considered the second major crop after banana in the coastal area due to productivity and income generation. Betel plants require humidity and pleasant weather to grow under sheds, which maintain the temperature. The sensitive vines neither survive in extreme heat nor biting cold, strong winds and heavy rains.

Random interviews from farmers show that this is peak season for the product, with price range between Rs1,000 to Rs1,500 per kilogram in the local markets such as Lea Market Paan Mandi and Memon Goth in Karachi, Hyderabad and Thatta city. A large part of the population in Thatta chews betel leaves.

A farmer said that out of the 30 members in his family, 22 chewed betel leaves, which gives an idea about the consumption pattern in Thatta. Some families have their own recipes to make slaked lime and catechu (chuna katha) for their consumption. He called “paan shops and cabins” a lucrative business in the entire district. “The common varieties available at shops include sada paan, meetha paan, pati (tobacco) paan, silver paan, fire paan, chocolate paan, and sulemani paan,” the farmer shared.

Betel farming has two seasons. The first one starts from April, May, June and July, while the other starts in September, October and November. Farmers get seedlings from gardens and each acre requires 1,000—1500 plants, depending on size. Likewise, it has two harvest seasons one starts from April to August while the second from October to January.

People believe that betel leaf chewing was beneficial for maintaining teeth. In some cases it provides relief in toothache. Some people apply leaf to cure injuries.

Betel farmers said November and December 2019 were better in terms of prices, as they received higher rates of up to Rs3,000 to Rs3,500/kg. In January, the prices have dropped to Rs1,000 to Rs1,500/kg. Each acre can give around 1,000-1,500kg each year, depending on garden care.

Gul Hassan Kalmati, a writer cum grower from Gadap town, Karachi said betel farming started declining in Dumloti area near Memon Goth during 1980s. Perhaps, 1985 was the last year in Dumloti when farmers adapted to alternative crops and sources of income due to acute water shortage, low soil fertility, and increasing air pollution.

“Air pollution is one of the major reasons that betel farms disappeared from the suburbs of Karachi,” Kalmati said, adding that once Malir, Karachi was a major supplier of betel leaves in the country.

Old farmers said some growers from Malir shifted to the coastal areas and started establishing betel gardens back in 1985. Kalmati himself had established a small betel vine garden near Sakro, Thatta district on a rented piece of land, but it did not survive the stormy winds in the area.

Since then the agriculture lands, which used to be fed by Dumloti wells turned into barren land.

In the past, some traders imported betel leaf from Thailand, but now they depend on locally produced product due to high import cost. Betel leaf is being farmed on more than 12,000 acres in Keti Bunder for supply to the whole country.

There are three varieties - Sanchi, Ceylon and Pakistani. All three are valued and priced differently depending on freshness, flavour, and quality.

Betel leaf use has been around for about 5,000 years not only as food, but also as a medicine. Some local people still use it for removing blood clots, while others eat it for shedding their weight. Many shops in different cities are famous for maintaining quality, and people present betel leaves as gifts to their relatives and friends. It is also part of wedding rituals. A combination of betel leaf and areca nuts symbolises a strong bond, fertility, and loyalty in a relationship. Betel leaf itself is harmless and rather healthy; however, regular consumption with areca nuts and tobacco can lead to oral cancer.

Climate change has made life uncertain for many farmers. They are also aware of the vulnerabilities of betel vines to climate change, but are still sure of recovering their losses from this crop.