A Proposed Kava Ban in Remote Communities Has Outraged Pacific Islanders

Detractors say the traditional drink is often abused, but others claim that it's an integral part of their culture.

by Paul Gregoire
13 March 2015, 12:00am

Teachers drinking Kava. All images courtesy of by Apo Aporosa.

Australian federal minister for Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion has announced a proposal to ban kava importation into the country. The move comes amidst claims that organized gangs of Pacific Islanders are smuggling the substance into remote Indigenous communities in north east Arnhem Land, where kava is allegedly used to an unhealthy degree. But the ban that would bring an end to the two-kilogram importation allowance for personal use has outraged local Pacific Islander communities, as kava is an integral part of their culture.

Scullion told VICE that due to Pacific Islander communities' concerns, he would be continuing consultations with them on a range of ways to approach the kava situation."Kava use outside of traditional South Pacific Islander cultural settings is associated with a number of social problems in some remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory," he said.

Kava is derived from the root of the Piper methysticum, a member of the black pepper family. The substance produces mild sedative, soporific, and calming effects. At many Pacific Islander ceremonies and social occasions people form a circle around a large bowl and drink powdered kava infused in water. They consider kava to contain mana (spiritual power).

A 30-gram bag of kava sells for $50 in North East Arnhem Land communities. It's smuggled into the region from a number of areas, including Sydney and the Pacific Islands. Between January 2009 and February 2013 the Northern Territory Police seized close to eight and half tons and made 216 arrests. Last Sunday, police seized 40 kilograms of kava, which if sold in remote communities has a value of up to $80,000.

Pouring Kava

"Kava was introduced to East Arnhem Land by missionaries as a substitute to alcohol prior to the 1980s," a spokesperson for Northern Territory Police said. "The situation is neither better nor worse. Police continue to work with community members to gather intelligence on the supply of kava in remote communities."

Controversy has surrounded kava usage since it was introduced into the NT. This led to the launch of the NT Kava Management Act of 1998. Karen Avery, senior director of Licensing NT, explained, "The act established regulated access to kava under certain conditions and controls, and helped to eliminate the black market in kava that was particularly rife in the Top End of the territory."

In 2002, the government set up a licensing system that allowed a controlled, locally-owned retail market to operate, which funneled money back into nearby communities. But in 2007 a federal government ban on the commercial importation of kava into Australia— due to concerns over usage in some Aboriginal communities—led to all legal sales of the substance coming to halt. Since that time the two-kilogram allowance to import kava for personal use has been in place.

The 2007 commercial ban simply led communities to purchase kava that had been cut with substances such as cement and baking soda.

Dr. Lucas de Toca of Miwatj Health Aboriginal Corporation said prolonged use of kava can cause skin irritation and liver damage. In addition, groups of people have been using kava late into the late, disrupting the community, and many locals are against its use.

As de Toca explained "Some of our concerns come from the widespread unregulated, certainly laced and uncontrolled use of a substance that we don't fully understand," de Toca said. "It's a substance that can be abused and is potentially dangerous to a vulnerable community."

VICE found representatives of the local Indigenous population reluctant to discuss kava and the impending ban. A local non-Indigenous source, who wishes to remain anonymous, explained that the Indigenous locals "don't want to be seen as being on one side or the other because straight away you get targeted by the government. They're frightened of being targeted by the police. We're living in a silent community here."

But concerns are being raised by representatives of Pacific Islander communities in Australia over the proposed ban, especially since the proposal is being made at a time when Australian overseas aid is funding the development of a bottled kava drink export industry in Fiji.

Osaiasi Faiva is the general secretary of the Tonga Parish, which is part of the Uniting Church in Sydney. He said that all official and social Tongan events are incomplete without kava. And although he doesn't drink kava himself, he said the ban would have devastating effects on local Pacific Islander communities, as people would turn to alcohol.

"How about alcohol? Which is more damaging? Most violent crimes are alcohol-related," he said. "The problem with kava is if you abuse it, yes there will be problems. If you don't abuse it, it's part of the culture and doesn't create any problems."

The 2007 commercial ban also negatively impacted Pacific Islander communities with people smuggling the substance, paying inflated prices and many younger people turning to alcohol.

Faiva welcomes Scullion's decision to consult Pacific Islander communities. "I think it's a great idea to have input. I'm sure they are deciding based on information available to them, so if this consultation goes ahead, this information should be debated," he said.

Dr. Apo Aporosa is a research associate at Waikato University's Anthropology program who has written a PhD these focused on kava use in contemporary society. He said that kava unites Pacific Islander communities and that the "ban amounts to a social justice, human rights issue threatening cultural identity, empowerment, and wellbeing."

Aporosa believes the kava problem is a political diversion. "The sociocultural dysfunction in Arnhem Land is the result of land confiscation," he said. "The government influenced legal injustices and disempowerment, which has caused traumatic social change," he said. "It's not kava. We all know that because before kava was even introduced to Arnhem Land there were major sociocultural issues there."

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