A South Pacific drink, kava, may be endangered by its own success, or the greed of people who profit from its sale.
It’s the end of the workday in Vanuatu and the men in the community relax with their favorite drink. As they talk about their day went and make plans for the weekend, an observer might think that it’s a scene at Starbucks in Washington DC or any pub tucked into a side street in New York City. The men though, aren’t wearing three-piece suits and wingtips and the beverage they are drinking isn’t coffee or beer. They’re relaxing in the sand around a fire-pit and drinking kava.
Some of the men are fishermen, some work at the island’s few businesses. Others are exporters of the drink they are tasting and some have retired. Kava is a social lubricant and much of Vanuatu’s social life — and economy — revolve around the Kava bush.
Unless the Vanuatu Government acts decisively, kava as an export may be history. At a Kava symposium in Fiji last week, the main topic was the use of what is called “two-day” kava in exports. The thriving kava-export business may be on the edge of collapse because of the greed of some growers, exporters and overseas sellers.
Vanuatu’s export of two-day kava continues to grow despite the restrictions of the island nation’s Kava Act. While the kava market has been slowly expanding, the continued export of two-day kava may finish it off. In a greedy push to sell more kava quicker, some exporters have turned to two-day to nudge the bottom line upwards and line their pockets.
Isa and Two-day
Menu boards outside of kava bars everywhere show a wide variety of kava drinks sold and many vendors in Hawaii are selling Isa Kava. At the symposium, one store, in Portland, Oregon, was revealed as selling Isa. One of Hawaii’s most widely grown plants, Isa is a completely different plant from the kava bush and is not safe to drink.
While not grown in, or exported from Vanuatu, Isa is one of the most potent plants in the kava family. Called “Tuday” in Hawaii and In Vanuatu it is called “Tudei” — pronounced “two-day” — because it’s effects are said to last two days. Potent and high in alkaloids, the plant itself is a strong, fast-growing variety. Since this variety grows faster than the normal noble kava, the tudei plant is harvested and exported quicker resulting in more profits. Quicker profits mean more money faster, but it also means the possible death-knell for noble kava growers and exporters.
What is Kava?
Kava has been used for centuries in the islands in the South Pacific. Both a central part of social life and prominent in ceremonial use, Kava was “discovered” in the 1700s and brought to Europe. From there its spread was steady but gradual. Today in America there are approximately 30 Kava “bars” scattered through the US.
Many Kava protagonists drink it for their belief in its muscle relaxing properties. A non-alcoholic, non-addictive drink, Kava is used by many for relief of general aches and pains as well as a stress-reliever without the fear of addiction. Commercially available in tinctures and tablets, a popular form is a tea made from powered kava.
Procyk is an American kava seller from Asheville, North Carolina. Procyk attended the Fiji conference to learn more about what the export market is doing. “Clearly, there are farmers, exporters and importers that do not know, or simply don’t care, about the future of the kava market,” Procyk said.
Procyk is working to help get CODEX, or safe-food standards which are recognized by the World Health Organization, policies established that will keep potentially dangerous Isa from being used. “Kava is completely safe, and the plants some of these sellers are peddling can’t even rightfully be called kava at all.”
Non-noble kava, or Isa, grows quicker allowing for short-term financial gain, by some growers, while putting the future of the island industry at risk. Growers and exporters in Vanuatu are selling two-day kava but keeping noble kava for their own use in violation of Vanuatu’s Kava Act.
“If they will not drink what they are growing for others, clearly there is a problem,” said a vendor who exports to the New Caledonia market.
Procyk who has a kava “bar” in Asheville, North Carolina says he only sells “noble” varieties in his establishment. Noble varieties are not too weak or too potent and are allowed to be exported. Procyk selects only the most desirable strains for every day drinking by his customers and is selective about the varieties so that he can maintain quality control.
The most popular strains of kava coming out of Vanuatu are “Borogu” from Pentecost Island, “Melomelo” from Ambae Island.
“The biggest shame is that many of us are working to also save the market for the very scoundrels who are knowingly in the process of … destroying it,” says Procyk.
By Jerry Nelson