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By Scott Radway

YAP, Federated States of Micronesia (Pacific Daily News, June 24) – The most traditional island group in Micronesia has quietly built an export industry around the cultural practice of chewing a soft tropical nut that offers mild stimulation and turns teeth red.

And so far, culture pays.

Yap Proper - population 7,000 - exported to the region about $3 million worth of its betel nut and pepper leaf used in chewing, according to the Yap agriculture department numbers for the period of March 2003 to February 2004.

That equates to 211 tons of betel nut and 16.3 tons of pepper leaf exported.

"Copra used to be our No. 1 export. We dried the copra and exported it to Asian countries. Now betel nut is our No. 1 cash crop," Yap Gov. Robert Ruecho said. "The money realized for fish export is not near betel nut."

Betel nut is described as mildly narcotic, similar to tobacco in cost and use, and similarly addictive.

Traditionally, a chew consists of a betel nut wrapped in pepper leaf with a touch of lime powder made from burned coral. The combination stains teeth red. In modern times, people have added tobacco to their chews and some negative health effects have resulted.

Betel nut chewing is common throughout the Pacific Islands and parts of Asia.

Yap, the western most state in the Federated States of Micronesia known mostly for its man-sized stone money disks, is a place where betel nut chewing is prolific and red betel nut smiles greet you at every turn.

Yapese betel nut has been sent primarily to neighboring islands of Guam and Saipan, then Chuuk in the FSM and smaller amounts to Palau. But on occasion, Yapese betel nut reaches as far as the Marshall Islands, Ruecho said.

Ben Yorormad, Yap's first exporter, sends up to 30 boxes of betel nut on each of the three flights out of Yap each week. In all, there are about a dozen exporters, although betel nut exports involve just about everyone in Yap.

He and the other exporters buy it straight from the villages. People can either bring it in to an exporter or agents -- paid on commission -- go around the villages and collect the bags of betel nut from $2 to $4 per large Ziploc bag.

Yorormad resells his stock in Saipan for about 75 cents per seven pieces of betel nut.

The popularity of Yapese betel nut in Micronesia is evident by the export numbers. Some say it is stronger or tastes better. Yorormad said his clients have grown as other islands have had betel nut shortages and people gave Yapese betel nut a taste.

"They have a hard time going back," he said.

Another theory is Yap historically has had the most complex and productive farming systems of native crops in Micronesia. That could have equated into large betel nut yields today.

The betel is not grown on farms. "We didn't plant it. It's just there in the boonies," Yorormad said.

Yorormad started boxing up Yapese betel nut in 1983, long before anyone else. People thought he was off kilter. Chewing betel nut was cultural, not commercial.

But as U.S. aid fed development in Yap and the cash system became more ingrained, people stopped shaking their heads at Yorormad in the mid-1990s.

People wanted in.

"Before we used it for our customs, now we use it to make money," Yorormad said. "Now, everybody wants to sell betel nut."

June 24, 2004

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