Crazed for kava

Fellows Fall 1999

By Colin Woodard

June 08, 2009

POHNPEI, MICRONESIA, Fall 1999 -- To an outsider, it looks like a jungle: lush, thick stands of tropical trees, vines and thick undergrowth stretching up the hillside toward the brooding volcanic peaks of this remote Pacific island.

"Not jungle," says Mark Kostka, laughing so hard he nearly spits out the betel nut he's been chewing. "These are our agricultural fields."

Farmers planted and carefully cultivate Pohnpei's lowland forests, from the canopy of breadfruit, papaya and banana trees to carefully placed yam and sweet potato vines.

And along the shady forest floors, they plant the most important crop of all: kava, a pepper shrub that has always had great ceremonial value here and has suddenly become the rage of alternative medicine markets of Europe and the United States.

"It takes a lot of skill to grow (kava) in the lowlands, but it makes the best (kava) and it doesn't hurt the environment," says Kostka, an agriculture expert at the College of Micronesia.

The growing commercial popularity of kava, however, is causing serious problems on the tropical Pacific islands where it is grown.

On Pohnpei, kava is so popular that many farmers have left these lowland agro-forests to practice slash-and-burn agriculture in the rain forests of the rugged interior. Two-thirds of Pohnpei's native forests have been damaged or destroyed in the past two decades, according to aerial surveys, a development that has been called the greatest environmental disaster in Pohnpei's 2,500-year history.

"If you lose the rain forest, you get droughts and landslides, you get erosion which hurts the reefs and mangrove forests -- (and) you lose all these bird and animal species that live only on Pohnpei," says forester Bill Raynor, Micronesia representative for the Nature Conservancy, a worldwide conservation group based in Arlington, Va.

Commercial demand for kava root has exploded in recent years as Westerners have discovered its usefulness as a nonaddictive sedative. Kava is one of the hot sellers in the fast-growing $26 billion U.S. natural products industry.

Kava exports to the United States from the Pacific grew by 66 percent last year, and the herb is one of the fastest-growing industries in Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu and Samoa.

In the United States and Europe, kava root is used in pills, natural beverages, teas and other products and is touted as a natural alternative to Valium-like relaxants in the treatment of mild anxiety.

"We're expecting a booming market because our society, our American culture, is in such desperate need of stress treatments," says John Kenney of LavaKava, a Sebastopol-based Internet marketer of kava.

"Northern California is very open to natural products, which is why we moved here, but many of our sales come from the East Coast," he says. "It may be because it's a higher-stress environment out there."

By American standards, Pohnpei is a low-stress environment. This 129-square-mile island is the capital of the Federated States of Micronesia -- a former U.S. territory -- but has only 33,000 people. Lush waterfalls, dense rain forests and spectacular coral reefs enchant the handful of mainland visitors who visit each year. There's no real industry and few jobs, but most Pohnpeian families carry on through subsistence fishing and farming.

Kava (called sakau here) is a sacred plant central to Pohnpeian social and cultural life. Mashed into a muddy drink, kava is used to seal agreements, honor visitors, request forgiveness, or in weddings, funerals and other ceremonies. But in recent decades it has also become an ordinary cash crop, sold as a recreational beverage in dozens of open-air sakau bars across the island.

"Sakau is supposed to be used only in very important matters, but now it's just used for recreation," says Iso Salvador Iriarte, one of Pohnpei's 10 paramount chiefs. "Now people drink it every day and they drink too much. Every evening, parents go away to bars and leave their children at home alone. Sakau is causing many problems now."

Raynor, who has lived on Pohnpei since 1981, says the $3 million local kava trade is now the major income source of much of the island's rural population. Almost half of the 1.1 million kilograms harvested each year enters the cash economy, but only about 10 percent is exported because of high shipping costs to major markets.

If kava prices rise, however, Pohnpei may join the growing export market currently dominated by the larger South Pacific island nations.

Kava is now a $47 million industry in Fiji, with nearly $9 million a year exported to Europe and the United States; there are plans to construct a processing factory on the island to boost earnings. Vanuatu's 1998 exports hit $11 million and were credited with turning the economy around after the Asian financial crisis.

As on Pohnpei, island leaders have expressed concern about excessive domestic consumption of this once-sacred plant. On Fiji, binge drinking of kava is creating health problems, according to researchers at the Universityof the South Pacific. Australia's Northwest Territories has reportedly tried to ban kava because of social problems arising from abuse by aboriginals.

But Pohnpei is alone in having serious kava-related environmental problems, according to Vincent Lebot, a French geneticist and kava expert based on Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu.

"Vanuatu and Fiji have plenty of good alluvial land, so farmers don't need to cut down the forests to have access to good soil," he says. "Pohnpei is by far the worst."

Conservationists on the island are hopeful that the trend can be reversed.

"We've got to get people to grow in the lowland agro-forests again and put the upland growers out of business," says Raynor. The lowland farms, however, were devastated in a 1982 drought and require more skill to manage properly, he said.

In an effort to rebuild these lowland kava farms, the Nature Conservancy is promoting a "Grow Low" campaign with the assistance of local agencies and traditional leaders. The project has assisted 600 small farmers in planting a new lowland crop that will mature later this year; Raynor hopes market forces will do the rest. Efforts are also under way to enforce watershed protection laws that preserve highland forests on paper but not yet in practice.

Iriarte, one of the paramount chiefs, says he has no objection to kava becoming an export crop in the future, so long as it is grown sustainably.

"Lowland sakau will be good. It's always been good," he said. "If there was a processing factory so we could (export) it as a powder, it might even be profitable."