Vanuatu defends its famous drink
By Andrew Harding
The tiny Pacific nation of Vanuatu is battling to defend the reputation of its national drink, a bitter peppery concoction called kava, which is famous for its medicinal, stress-relieving properties.
Since 2000, kava has been banned by many European countries, following claims that the herbal remedy can cause severe liver damage.
Now Australia has imposed tight new import restrictions because of concerns that it is being abused in some Aboriginal communities.
But in Vanuatu, kava drinking remains an essential evening ritual, as the roots of the Piper methysticum plant are washed, chopped, mashed (ideally with a stick of dry coral) and strained into coconut cups.
“Everyone knows here that kava is not dangerous,” said Dr Vincent Lebot, a kava expert and enthusiast, based in Vanuatu.
“It is not like alcohol or nicotine. It is not addictive.”
Many people on these remote islands believe that kava has been unjustly demonised.
They claim that the herb – once widely available globally in pill form as a natural treatment for stress and anxiety, and known as “kava kava” – was encroaching on the turf of international pharmaceutical companies.
Now Vanuatu’s case has been strengthened by a new report from the World Health Organisation which appears to rule out a link between kava and liver damage.
“Kava cleared!” a recent headline in the local newspaper in Port Vila proclaimed.
Instead, local people point to Kava’s stress-relieving properties.
“It relaxes you,” explained Chief Selwyn Garu, enjoying his second cup at dusk. “In fact, I’m struggling to talk right now!”
“Beer makes you excited. It sets people at each others’ throats. But kava makes you want to sit still.”
Despite the new restrictions imposed by Australia, kava traders in the Pacific are now hoping to revive their export industry, which has been badly damaged by the bans in Europe and elsewhere.
Chief Selwyn – one of Vanuatu’s most senior tribal chiefs – is optimistic.
“If you think about big markets, if they open up to kava, then it’s going to be [as popular as] the Cuban cigar.”
But Vincent Lebot is more wary.
“I’m not sure. In Europe, consumers are already scared. The damage is already done.”