By Katie Worth

HAGATNA, Guam (Pacific Daily News, Dec. 24) - Farmers in southern reaches of the island yesterday said they are taking big losses in their betel nut crops, and both farmers and chewers expressed concern about the implications on the pugua-chewing culture if the island's betel nut trees are wiped out.

In Merizo, betel nut growers shook their heads as they pointed upward at their dead and dying trees already infected by the quickly spreading fungus threatening the island's betel nut.

Shopkeepers and growers said it is already becoming much harder to find the betel nut fruits, pugua in Chamorro, for sale in the south, and said the price per nut has turned up sharply.

Earlier this week, agriculture experts said they had identified the fungus -- Phytophthora meadii -- that began killing Merizo's pugua trees in September as the same fungus that extinguished Saipan's pugua crops eight years ago.

Pugua, a palm tree that yields a hard nut-like fruit, has long been chewed by Pacific islanders. When chewed, the pugua produces a bitter red juice that is known for being a mild stimulant.

Pugua grower Antoine Tajalle, 21, of Merizo said that different Pacific cultures have different traditions around pugua-chewing. He explained that Guam's Chamorro population traditionally chews the pugua after they ripen and get hard. Other Marianas and Micronesian islanders prefer to chew the nut when it is still young, soft and meaty, he said, and some chew it with ground limestone, tobacco and the leaf of a vine known locally as "pupulu."

In addition to being a culturally beloved practice, pugua also is a good source of income for farmers in the south.

Merizo resident Ben Champaco farms pugua to supplement his retirement income, and said sales often bring him about $300 a month. He has sold five to six pieces for $1. However, some of his 600 to 700 pugua plants have begun to die after becoming infected with the fungus.

"It's a primary source of our income, and it's something that we've grown accustomed to help us out with all the bills and everything," Champaco said.

He said he fears he may lose his whole crop, and said if that happens, even if officials manage to control the fungus, it could take about five years to grow a producing crop again.

"Oh boy, it's hitting me fast," he said. "If they don't come out with a solution, it will kill everything."

Pugua farmer Joe Barcinas said most of his crop is gone already, and only a few of his more than 200 trees are still standing. He said the sudden lack of betel nut in the south has created high demand.

"I tell you, this one young guy, maybe 20, 22 years old, one night he came here about 11 at night and said he would buy betel nut at a dollar apiece. That's how desperate people are," he said.

Former Merizo Mayor Buck Cruz had more than 100 pugua trees in his yard before they began dying in recent weeks. Yesterday, he walked around his yard, pointing out dead, fallen leaves and topless trees. He said he does not chew himself and usually does not sell the nuts, but gives them away to his friends and family who do chew.

"I'm afraid it's going to be a big, big problem," he said. "I have a family friend, 92 years old, she called me up this morning and she said, 'Ay, Buck, what am I going to do without betel nut!'"

Grace Reyes, 28, a cashier at Kathy's Minimart in Merizo, said that the village manamko' have been coming into the store looking for pugua, but each time the store gets a supply, it sells out immediately. She said she believes it will be hard on the manamko' and the island's culture if the island's pugua is wiped out.

"It's part of their day, it's very important to them," she said. "When they come in, you see how stressed they are if we don't have any. They get kind of depressed, and when we do have it, they get all excited and say, 'Oh good! There's betel nut here.'"

Inarajan resident Ignacia Chargualaf, 55, said she does not chew but her husband and son do. She recalled her grandmother, born in the 19th century, chewing the nut.

"After typhoons, pugua would get scarce, so she (would) chew on the roots of the coconut tree," she said. "Maybe people will do that, or maybe they'll turn to pugua china, the Chinese kind of pugua."

Champaco said in addition to worrying about his own financial future if his crop is destroyed, he is concerned about the cultural implications if pugua is no longer easily available on island.

"These are cultural traditions," he said. "And look at what's going on right now. We don't even know how to speak Chamorro anymore. When things like this are taken away, the culture changes."

December 24, 2003

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