Pacific communities seek to protect kava as it gains global popularity


Preparing the kava drink in Fiji. Photo from Flickr page of Dave Lonsdale. CC BY 2.0 DEED

Kava (Piper methysticum) is a plant native to the Pacific islands. Its roots are dried, crushed, and mixed with water which turns it into a non-alcoholic drink with sedative and stress relieving effects. Kava is used not just in ceremonies but in the everyday lives of Pacific communities.

Thanks to the Pacific diaspora community, Pacific kava has become a popular alternative health drink around the world. Meanwhile, regional leaders and communities are working to protect small farmers and secure intellectual property protection for the ancestral root crop.

Over the past few years, global demand for kava has risen as more people seek out the drink for its mood and health benefits. Kava extracts are processed and sold as powdered drinks, including tea.

Kava exports boomed in response to the demand. In 2023, Vanuatu exported 351 tons of kava to the United States. In 2020, Fiji's Ministry of Trade reported over USD 25 million of kava exports. During the same year, kava composed around 28 percent of Tonga's exports.

Kava bars and lounges offering the drink have sprouted across the United States. News that Americans started to grow their own kava elicited mixed reactions in the Pacific. It was welcomed by exporters but some farmers and scholars called it “cultural appropriation.”

Fiji Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka reminded stakeholders to level up the growing and processing of kava.

It is bound to have an impact if Fiji does not move from the subsistence growing, preparation, marketing/promotion and reliance on the Fijian and Fijian Diaspora customers.

If Fiji and Pacific Islands kava producers want to retain or increase their customers, they must explore more down-stream processing to extend the market beyond ‘custom’ consumers or Pacific Islanders.

Fiji’s Ministry of Trade permanent secretary Shaheen Ali proposed the introduction of geographical indicators for kava exports.

As the Pacific Community, we need to also fast track the work on the protection of kava, and in particular the geographical indications to protect kava as a Pacific commodity, for the benefit of our smallholder kava farmers who depend on this crop for their livelihoods.

The former secretary-general of the Pacific Islands Forum, Henry Puna, criticized the use of the name “kava” for products made outside the Pacific.

It’s not for everybody else to use.

If they’re selling a similar product, well, they can use a different name. But we have to be realistic and accept that there are other tropical zones in the world where they grow this product.

Timothy Tumukon, director general of Vanuatu’s Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Forestry, Fisheries, and Biosecurity, told Fiji Times in an interview that kava bars in the U.S. are not offering the traditional kava drink, but rather an imitation.

The kava bars that are dropping up in the US and beyond are using kava extracts. It is not purely the kava as we know it. And this is where the concerns arise. That we need to very quickly define that space, define what it is. It’s being mixed with other products and that really is not kava. It’s something else.

For Praveen Narayan, an exporter of kava from Fiji, news about kava planting in the U.S. should not alarm local growers at the moment.

It will take them years to master what has been done in the Pacific for the last 3000 years so I am not too concerned with the Americans growing their own kava at the moment.

Jon Naupa, a kava exporter in Vanuatu, also believes that Pacific growers will continue to have the advantage in producing the native crop.

Kava is a very fragile, finicky, funny plant. It's not just stick it in the ground and it grows. Anyone who tells you that has never planted kava.

You've got to have the right amount of shade, you've got to watch out for El Nino coming up, you've got to look at the drainage.

In an interview with the media, an American grower addresses the concerns raised about kava planting in the U.S.

There’s an exodus of people from the islands and not a bunch of people coming back. So by allowing Pacific islanders to grow kava in America, it’s kind of bridging that cultural knowledge gap between generations. Someone is going to be able to teach their son or daughter how to grow kava whereas that would not have been possible in America before this point.

Ulise Funaki, a Tongan scholar at the University of Hawaii, welcomed the continued use of kava in diaspora communities.

The benefits of that export from the Pacific for these communities, you almost can't count it because while we're out here, while we're working, while we're doing the things we need to do as a people in our communities in the diaspora, we benefit as well.

We highly benefit from having access to that cultural, ancestral plant that is being brought to us, that we purchase and we use at funerals, weddings and there is the economics of how much is exported.

However, the scholar also warned about the improper appropriation of kava.

…when you commodify and commercialise kava in ways that are not respectful of the tradition, not respectful as a people, and how we relate and how we engage with kava, then you have a problem on your hands.

Anau Mesui Henry, who owns a kava lounge in Auckland, underscored the proper way of drinking kava.

Water, kava — that's it. Anything outside of that, I don't even know what you're drinking.

There's a connection to it, you're drinking it with other people, you're creating meaningful conversations, you're creating meaningful relationships.

Kava is alive, that's how I see it. It's a living thing in my perspective. So, you're honouring it when you're having that proper drinking of the kava.

1 comment

  • Kava (‘Awa here in Hawai’i) has been grown in Hawai’i since the Polynesian voyagers arrived hundreds and hundreds of years ago. Currently, and for the foreseeable future, Hawai’i is a State within the United States. Hawai’i cultivars of ‘Awa are unique to Hawai’i.
    There are claims that “kava” is being grown in Florida, USA. I wonder if this is really the case? Timothy Tumukon’s comment regarding kava extracts being sold at US kava bars is partly true, however some kava bars in the US make and sell aqueous kava as defined in Codex Kava Standards.

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