ALL WORKED UP OVER KAVA

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By Kalinga Seneviratne

SYDNEY, Australia (January 7, 1999 – Asia Times Online/Inter Press Service)---The kava plant is the base ingredient in a relaxing traditional drink from the South Pacific, but these days it has made officials and activists in the region rather agitated.

More to the point, increasing outsider interest in the South Pacific cash crop-cum-cultural item has made small island nations worried that traditional knowledge about kava is being stolen from under their noses.

Thus, the region's islands formed a Pacific Kava Council (PKC) at the second Kava Symposium organized last October by the South Pacific Forum (SPF) Secretariat in Suva, Fiji.

SPF officials say the council aims to protect the tiny island nations' intellectual and financial interests regarding kava.

For centuries, South Pacific islanders have mashed the kava root and stem into a pulp, mixing it with either coconut milk or water. After fermentation, the elixir is ready to drink. Mildly intoxicating and known to have a sedative effect, kava tonic is a staple in many island ceremonies and other social gatherings.

Until several years ago, kava was relatively unknown outside the South Pacific.

But then Western pharmaceutical companies and makers of herbal medicine got wind of kava's apparent soothing abilities. They were soon buying kava in large quantities to use in stress-relieving pills and tonics.

Some even set up kava plantations in Central America using plants imported from the South Pacific.

The island nations say they welcome the use of the kava plant in Western medicine, but want to benefit from this contribution.

Governments in the region say that because they have intellectual property rights to kava's relaxing qualities, they are entitled to obtain maximum monetary benefits from the plant's commercial uses.

''Now that kava has become a real source of income, someone in the islands who has land and grows 1,000 kava plants is a rich man,'' observes Vanuatu kava exporter Charles Long Wah.

Edgar Cocker, marketing officer of the SPF trade and investment division, denies PKC aims to form a cartel. He says the new body will be working on patent issues, although he concedes that this will be difficult because ''it is no longer a new development.'

''In relation to IPR issue, we will approach differently by patenting the chemical and genetic properties of each variety,'' says Cocker. ''The approach will be on identification of chemical characteristics, genetic heritage and morphotypes.''

Among the region's top kava producers are Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Micronesia. The kava industry employs thousands of workers in the island nations and is a major source of export revenue for most of them.

Says Fijian economist Reg Sanday: ''The kava industry is of considerable importance to the economic development of these countries, because of village-level activity in the cultivation and harvesting of the kava plant.''

The PKC will be working closely with the Suva-based University of the South Pacific in doing chemical analysis regularly. The group's aims include the recognition of kava chromotypes, chemo types and gene types in an effort to protect South Pacific rights to kava on a global scale.

A user guide will also be developed and distributed to growers and exporters.

South Pacific islands face a number of constraints on the growth of the industry, such as availability of planting material, understanding of proper cropping techniques, quality standards, poor handling procedures and price fluctuations.

They are also worried about the potential competition from the newly established kava plantations in Central America.

''One of the council's main roles is to disseminate technical and marketing information regularly and timely,'' says Cocker, adding that they will need to ensure that South Pacific exporters are not undercutting each other in terms of price, quality and market specifications.

According to Cocker, overseas buyers now are pitting exporters from one country against those from another kava-producing nation as a bargaining tactic.

''At the moment there is really no legal means to protect growing in other regions,'' the SPF officer notes. ''Exporting of kava planting material from producing countries is now banned all over.''

Roxanna Naylor, owner of the Vanuatu-based U.S. firm Kava Kompany, argues that rather than worrying about IPR issues, South Pacific countries must try to increase their kava output lest they fail to have enough kava to fulfill U.S. market potential.

Last year, Kava Kompany -- which works with a U.S. laboratory -- introduced 10 kava-based products to the U.S. market. These include a drink called Mellow Out, a blend of kava and a Chinese herb, sold at 90 dollars a liter.

A capsule called 'Kavatrol', advertised in airline magazines as a remedy for jet lag, is sold in the United States at nine dollars per packet of 30. Then there is 'Erotikava', advertised in adult magazines as a tonic to be taken after dinner ''preferably in a candle-lit room with soft music.'

German, Japanese and U.S. companies are also believed to be planning to market kava tablets in South-east Asia as stress- relief capsules.

Western Samoan environmentalist Chris Peteru suggests that the term ''kava'' should be patented, similar to Coca-Cola.

''Coca-Cola says the name (and the formula) is ours and no one can use it,'' Peteru says. ''Kava should be patented in a similar way to Coke, so that only the Pacific Island countries as a group can use the name kava to market their products internationally.''

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