Kids of the betel nut industry
Report & Photos Morshed Ali Khan ›
In an early morning of November recently, a group of a dozen boys between the ages of six and 15 gather by a betel nut orchard at a remote village of Choto Biraljhuri of Kowkhali upazila 230 km south of the capital Dhaka.
The kids are here because they have been hired to harvest betel nuts from the slender trees rising up to 80 feet above the ground. The region is one of the largest betel nut growers in the world and it offers children as young as six years of age the chance of a seasonal job lasting for three months between September and November.
Just like the camel jockeys, harvesting beetle nuts requires children as light as possible. The grown up weighty men risk breaking the top of the tree and fall.
The orchard owners engage hundreds of children from primary schools to do the job. Each tree a child harvests, he earns Tk 4 (US $ 0. O5 Cents). At the end of the day, a child gets back home having harvested up to 100 trees.
The remarkable thing of harvesting is the acrobatic skill in which these kids operate. As soon as the child arrives at the orchard he gets hold of a fallen leaf (the unbranched nut tree has long feathered fan shaped leaves like palm, very strong in nature) and makes a round shaped lock. He slips his feet into the lock and climbs the tree at ease. Thickly planted beetle nut trees cover every household in this part of the country. So in most cases once the child climbs a tree he does not descend to climb the next one. Instead, having ripped the harvest, he throws the bunch down for a man to collect it. Then from the top he swings the tree and swiftly jumps on to the next. This goes on until there is no more tree within his reach.
For the first time six-year-old Zahirul started the job this year. He is a first grader at the local madrasa. His frail physical structure reveals a telltale sign of malnutrition.
“I become very tired after doing 40 to 50 trees a day and I give my mother all the money I earn,” he says, having descended from a tall tree with a bunch of nuts. Then Zahirul shows the skin of his chest, which despite his wearing a T-shirt, looks bruised. “Within two years my skin will get used to it,” he announces proudly.
Zahirul’s father, Mamun is a day laborer. Mamun says lots of children in the village have become crippled after falling from the trees.
“I am worried about my child when he is working in the orchards,” he says.
Sohrab, a rickshaw puller, from the same village says his ten-year-old son is now at a hospital with a broken leg and right arm.
“The employers refuse to pay the treatment costs after he fell from a tree last week while harvesting beetle nuts,” Sohrab adds.
In this pristine village little do the kids know where their harvests would end up. Last year India alone imported more than 50,000 tons of betel nuts through a single land port of Benapole. Then the betel nuts from Bangladesh are exported throughout the world where Asian communities thrive.
As the harvest time for beetle nuts approaches wholesale buyers of orchards all along the southern regions start recruiting the juvenile experts.
“Imagine a toddler returning home at the end of the day to hand over Tk 400 (US$ 5) to his mum whereas the family’s average daily earning is around Tk 200,” says a teacher of the local primary school.
Villagers and even local police look into the matter differently. “This is not exploitation of child labor but giving opportunity to children to earn some cash,” says Amitabh, a primary school teacher. “People here do not mind.”
A Barisal based NGO, Aparajeo Bangladesh works for the rights of children. Ferdousi Sultana, its coordinator says this is clearly exploiting children. “The orchard owners employ the children throughout the southern region just to save money.” “They pay less to children to get their job done.”
For millions of Asians, betel nut has been the ideal treat after a meal or tea break. Jokingly called ‘Asian chewing gum’, the green leaf called paan is generally sprinkled with chopped betel nut, lime and tobacco. On occasions more exotic spices like fennel seeds, cardamom, clove are added before it is slid into the mouth. As it is munched, people enjoy the spicy taste, the warmth in their body, the alertness it gives feels something like drinking a fresh cup of coffee. It is definitely a strong stimulant that makes millions of Asians addicted to it.
And this addiction has a price to pay. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has found that munching paan with all its ingredients over a long period of time could cause cancer of mouth, esophagus, stomach, prostate, cervix, and lungs. Mouths develop ulcers, and gums deteriorate.
But for the children of the southern Bangladesh, where the whole process starts, the traditional snack of paan brings a short – lived spark of solace.
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