Betel Nut Mountain

Betel nut mountain
Areca palm trees on a mountainside in Guanziling, Tainan.

Areca palm plantations are commonly found in the foothills of western Taiwan. These palms are cultivated for the Areca nut, which is combined with Betel leaf and various other ingredients (usually slaked lime and sometimes chewing tobacco) to produce what is commonly known as “betel nut”, or bīnláng 檳榔, a stimulant popular among blue-collar workers. This carcinogenic concoction is chewed, producing a distinctive blood red discoloration of the teeth and gums, and typically spit out onto the street.

Betel nut is big business in Taiwan. Large swathes of forest in the western foothills have been clearcut, blighting the otherwise beautiful mountainsides with ugly palm-infested scars. This is particularly evident in Guānzilǐng 關子嶺, a hot springs resort town in Báihé 白河 in northeastern Tainan 台南, home to a place by the name of Bīnlángshān 檳榔山, literally “betel nut mountain”. Drive along on highway 172, where this photograph was shot, and you’ll easily see the industrial scale of the desecration.

This same shot was featured in the excellent documentary, Beyond Beauty: Taiwan From Above 看見台灣, a film that absolutely everyone should watch—especially Taiwanese people. Apart from highlighting the natural beauty of the island Formosa it also exposes the environmental impact of Taiwan’s economic miracle and the wasteful, short-sighted consumerist society that it has spawned.

Taiwan is not alone in walking this path, of course—pretty much every other capable nation is similarly plundering its natural resources at an unsustainable rate. Betel nut plantations are just another example of boundless human avarice, of our tendency to optimize for short-term gain without thinking about the costs. Not only is the cultivation of betel nut inimical to the natural world—even increasing landslide risk—but its consumption also kills us, however slowly. We are destroying the planet in countless ways, sometimes only to hasten our own demise.