There is a push for traditional kava growing countries in the Pacific to ban the export of “beverage grade” plant cuttings after Australia was floated as a prospect for its production.
The plant is intimately connected with Pacific Island countries and the drink made from its powdered root mixed with water is widely used in social and ceremonial gatherings.
It is known for its sedative and sometimes euphoric effects, and rituals are said to strengthen social bonds, reaffirm status and communicate with spirits.
In Australia, kava is classified by law as a controlled substance.
However the federal government listed a pilot program allowing commercial importation by December in its most recent budget, following a doubling of the amount allowed into the country from two kilograms to four.
But as commercial interest in the plant grows, so do concerns about protecting its cultural links to Islander communities.
As well as the call to ban cuttings, the Pasifika Kava Forum is encouraging trade officials to list the plant as a “specific Pacific product” to protect market share in sectors such as beverage and nutri-pharmaceuticals.
“There is a need for us as Pacific Islanders to protect this plant for the Pacific region. It is our intellectual property,” forum founder Fe'iloakitau Kaho Tevi says.
“Kava is one of those plants that is culturally linked to us and to our identity as Pacific Islanders.”
The forum describes itself as “the Pacific region's premium social media platform that addresses all matters related to kava”.
After launching a little over a year ago, it now has almost 3000 members.
The concerns follow a submission to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade discussion paper on Pacific Labour Mobility, in which Queenlsand's Bundaberg Council said relaxing kava laws could make life in Australia more “social and agreeable” for Pacific Island workers.
“The Bundaberg Region provides an ideal climate and innovative horticulture sector to trial kava production in Australia,” it says.
“Partnerships could also be established with Vanuatu growers to enable processing of kava produced there and distributed in Australia from Bundaberg utilising our port.”
Mayor Jack Dempsey says the concerns from the Pacific are “entirely understandable”.
“Kava is one of the most lucrative exports for many island nations and demand is growing,” he said
“Bundaberg can potentially value-add to this developing industry through sharing horticulture expertise and knowledge in marketing, distribution and processing.
“We don't want to take over production or compete with Pacific Islands.”
Mr Dempsey said the Queensland agriculture hub was open to partnerships that would help the industry grow and meet global demand for the economic benefits of Pacific countries.
“I also support allowing controlled consumption of kava by Pacific seasonal workers in Australia for cultural reasons,” he said
“Unfortunately, there's already an illegal market, which often occurs when there's prohibition.”
Mr Dempsey says he's unsure whether countries in the Pacific can meet production demand “as kava becomes more popular for health and medicinal use, and prohibition is relaxed”.
He says he's been approached by a prominent Fiji producer who wants to visit Bundaberg and look at partnership opportunities.
“In my recent discussions with the Mayor of Luganville (Vanuatu) and the Premier of Malaita Province (Solomon Islands), they've both raised the need for expertise in expanding their horticulture industries.
“That's my primary focus going forward.”Internet Explorer Channel Network