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Anthropological View

An Anthropological View
by Kirk W Huffman

Thinking About Kava

Part Three


Last Saturday morning I was at the Health Food section in the bottom floor of the Clot Mares market in San Antonio to purchase some tofu when an Ibicenco woman I knew came up and asked me if I had any idea what was happening with Kava. I replied that I was possibly about as up to date as anybody else and explained the situation. Readers of the last two issues will be more up to date than she was (and more up to date than most people in the world). She said that for some time she had been regularly purchasing a relaxing natural medicine from one of the pharmacies in Vila (Ibiza town) and that one of the listed ingredients was 'kavakava'. During February, though, she said the medicine was not available but that it was now back on the shelves and she had just purchased another batch. She was surprised to find a small sticker, though, stuck over the portion that previously listed kava as one of the ingredients. The sticker read (in Spanish) 'No contiene Kavakava' (‘does not contain Kava'). Well, it seems the media scare, which reached a peak in Germany towards the end of last year, has now had its effect on Spain. But what is it all about?

In early November 2001 the German Bf ArM - the Federal Institute of Drugs and Medical Devices in Bonn - announced that it had received from German doctors reports that there had been 24 cases of individuals with various levels of liver damage in which it was suspected that there was a possible connection with the intake of medicinal kava extract/tablets as an anxiety/stress reliever. The Bf ArM (Germany's equivalent of the US Food and Drug Administration, the FDA) then requested information and 'pro and con' kava views from the pharmaceutical, health food and medical professions to enable them to try and make some formal decision about the safety of kava in medical extract form. They gave a deadline of 21st December 2001 for reports to reach their office and they were expected to make a decision by the end of January 2002. They began their decision-making meetings on 6th January and, as a result...it seems that the press around the world has announced a German 'ban' on the use of kava extract in natural medicines used to combat stress, anxiety, tension and other such ills of the modern world. Possibly not to be outdone by their German colleagues, the French government announced a pre-emptive ban on all medicinal kava products on 14th January and their medicinal registration within France was withdrawn that day. Certain Pacific Island states, the world's major kava exporters, were puzzled, shocked and, to put it mildly, angry. And rightly so! A Kanak (indigenous Melanesian New Caledonian) friend and colleague wrote to me on 17th January, "The French and German prohibition on the use of kava is big news in Vanuatu and here. Just when an island product could permit our small economies to survive, the big countries put a stop to it...PS One should hint to the French and Germans that it would be better to ban alcohol and tobacco, which are a lot more dangerous than kava!" (Translated from the French). Import orders for South Pacific kava were rapidly cancelled by companies in the US and Europe and by early March kava exports from the Pacific had juddered to a halt.

This is a disaster for Pacific Island economies, particularly for Vanuatu, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. There is no gold, oil or other rich mineral resources in most of the Pacific islands (except for gold and copper in Papua New Guinea, and nickel in New Caledonia, but neither of these countries export kava), leaving heavily-forested islands in the western Pacific rather desperately open to dubious (mostly SE Asian) logging companies as one of the few possible sources of income besides the export of copra (the smoked and dried meat of the coconut). The Vanuatu government had counted on a 16% increase in income in 2002 over its kava exports from last year. Now these governments, and their kava-growing populations, seem to have been kicked and insulted by 'the white man's world' yet once again. Overseas countries, and foreign entities such as the World Bank, the IMF and foreign economic advisors to these Pacific nations have perpetually been telling them that they must develop exports that will cut down on their needs for overseas financial aid. Kava seemed like the ideal answer: it was local, traditional and did not require backbreaking labour to prepare for export. It looked like parts of the Pacific had finally found one of their own products that would enable them to achieve some form of economic independence. Then the European press fanned the flames of a frenzy, announced the German 'ban' and stopped the whole export industry in its tracks. It is said there is nearly (Australian) $200 million worth of kava, growing in Pacific Island nations, ready for export within the next couple of years. The whole situation is extremely depressing and Pacific Island governments and indigenous inhabitants relying on kava exports have a right to be absolutely furious. The kava-exporting nations called urgent meetings in January and February 2002 to try and deal with the rather hysterical accusations regarding kava and liver damage that were appearing in the European press. As the drinking of kava by Pacific males is an extremely ancient and respected practice, it goes without saying that more is known about kava in the Pacific by Pacific Islanders than by European (or American) scientists - and liver damage in traditional kava drinkers is not a known side-effect.

The already-planned Pacific Herbs Business Forum meeting took place in the capital of Vanuatu 18th-20th February. Sponsored by the Brussels-based Centre for Development of Enterprise in association with the Commonwealth Secretariat in London and the (Netherlands) Technical Centre for Agriculture and Rural Co-operation it brought together nearly 100 professionals involved in the production and consumption of Pacific medicinal plants and related natural products. Because of recent events in Europe, kava was the main topic of discussion. What were the reasons for the kava 'ban' and what should Pacific Island nations do?

But wait a minute. The main 'problem' seems to lie in Germany, and with France and Britain (and now Spain - and with warnings at the beginning of this month in Australia) and other nations recommending the withdrawal from sale of kava-based anti-stress medicines based purely upon the German announcement and German press-generated statements circulated around the world. Has anyone really followed up what is going on in Germany? Seemingly not. My wife and I spent three weeks in Germany from late December and I used the opportunity to telephone widely to try and get to the bottom of all this. Readers may be interested to know - and Pacific Islanders rather shocked and angered to hear - that medicinal kava extracts to combat stress and anxiety are still openly on sale in German pharmacies (I rang a colleague in Germany on Monday night – 18th March - to get this confirmed) and there is (as yet) no official 'ban' on medicinal kava products announced by the relevant German Government Ministry. The Bf ArM in Bonn has not yet announced any decision - although everyone was expecting an announcement at the end of January. This seems to be a situation where a media-inspired frenzy, regarding the possibility of a 'ban', has in fact created a de facto ban, to the detriment of the long-suffering Pacific Islanders, who have had long experience with the inconsistencies, irrationalities, irrelevancies and - to put it plainly, idiocies - of the 'white mans' world. What would be rather nice poetic justice, in a way, would be to see a group of traditional Pacific chiefs, or a group of Pacific Nations, get together and bring a legal court case against certain European nations (and the EU in Brussels, for good measure) and certain European media outlets for sheer stupidity, cultural incomprehension and lack of respect (and, just for good measure, include a whopping financial fine to cover loss of kava export revenue)!

Tens of thousands - if not hundreds of thousands - of men from the kava-drinking areas of the Pacific have been regularly using the sacred drink for untold generations and no-one has any stories of liver damage caused by it (in fact in certain areas of northern Vanuatu, where a mild form of hepatitis is almost hereditary, kava-drinking seems in no way to aggravate that). Then the 'white man' comes, his missionaries (at least in Vanuatu) try to prohibit kava drinking as associated with 'heathenism and devil worship', colonial governments demean it as 'unhygienic', tourists don't like the taste... and then what happens? The 'white man' suddenly finds out that there is money to be made from it, it can be made into a relaxing medicine to treat one of the 'white mans'' major diseases, 'stress'. Everyone tells Pacific Islanders, "Plant lots of this wonderful bush and we will buy its roots from you and you will make lots of money". Over nearly the last couple of decades there has been a rather frenzied rush amongst European and US pharmacological specialists to experiment with the plant's roots, to try and decipher its chemical secrets, to take a bit from here and a bit from there, concentrate it to get a stronger effect and so on and so forth. You know the game. They forget that it is a sacred plant, given in its entirety from the Spirit World, but modifiable along certain traditional guidelines. In much of northern Vanuatu, it is a Woman, or from a Woman (and therefore forbidden for women to drink, except in a special form for medicinal purposes), and is due respect as that Woman was due respect. By the early 1990s the Pacific began receiving visits from various forms of 'bioprospectors', some good, some bad, looking for special varieties of the plant or for access to particular sources of supply for their employer's back in Europe or the US. By the mid-1990s, even Vanuatu, always more cautious about protecting its monopoly of most of the world's varieties of kava and more concerned about ensuring regular supplies for its traditional drinkers, began exporting. By the mid-to-late 1990s overseas producers of medicinal kava extract and kava tablets and associated products were crying out for more and more and more. Prices per kilo of fresh or dried root or powder exported from the Pacific became rather reasonable for the growers. By the late 1990s, certain overseas interests were trying to patent the plant, or its chemical ingredients, but with no real notable success. Then certain 'white people' started turning up in the Pacific, telling Pacific Island states that they would have to lower their kava export prices and some even hinted that if they did not, other countries would start growing kava with modern methods and take over the export market.

Well, Hawaii has started mass-growing kava plants in plantations, with all the modern accoutrements. Under missionary pressure, the traditional practice of kava drinking had almost died out in Hawaii, as have the original Polynesian Hawaiians (only 1% of the population is now of pure Polynesian descent, 8% of mixed Polynesian descent) and the real understanding of kava has seemingly disappeared as well. Modern 'plantation methods' do not necessarily produce the best kava, and it is said that if one split open the roots of an Hawaiian plantation kava it is soft like a cucumber inside. In Vanuatu one might consider that to be a plant not worth drinking, but then most drinkers or purchasers of roots for pharmaceutical companies in Hawaii or the mainland US would probably not know that. By early 2000 French and German representatives of certain kava-importing pharmaceutical companies were hinting to the Pacific nations that (do I hear "Unless you lower the price of your kava roots"?) another plant with similar effects to kava might be found. Readers with knowledge of business processes in the commodities business will recognize here the general pattern of stages common to overseas big business interests trying to corner control of a potentially lucrative source material. If one follows through these stages, the next obvious step is one where imports are cut off for a while so that the increasingly desperate exporters are then forced to lower their base price to almost nothing to entice the importers to begin purchasing stocks again. The first bit of this last stage has effectively been done by the rather dramatic and ill-researched nature of the recent European press reports.

It is a sad story and one that Pacific Island nations are rather familiar with. The West has finally discovered kava, and has adopted kava for its own purposes: it has taken it over, played with it and changed it, out of almost all recognition, for its own needs so that it bears almost no resemblance to its original form. In doing so, they may have completely messed it up and may have therefore not just left the situation in a mess, but have seriously damaged a series of small nations that were relying on this plant for assistance in economic independence. Worst of all, the West has shown a lack of respect for a traditional aspect of the spiritual beliefs of a series of nations who are so far away from this side of the world that they cannot really fight back. It is the continuing story of colonialism, exploitation and destruction.

Actually, the West needs kava more than certain Pacific nations need the money from kava root exports. At least in Vanuatu, if there is less kava exported, there will certainly be no lack of kava for the indigenous kava drinkers, and there is no lack of the latter in Vanuatu! But on what basis is Germany considering its potential 'ban'? Why has this 'problem' come up only now, when German doctors were the first Europeans to begin looking at the medicinal properties of kava as long ago as 1860 and medicinal kava extract has been available in certain German medicines since 1890? What has this got to do with Eivissa/Ibiza and you reading this column in the UK or the USA or wherever? It actually affects us all, and in my concluding article on kava next week I shall explain why.

Kirk W Huffman