Anthropological Studies on the Kava Trade
In 2009, Nancy J Pollack published an academic article on the sustainability of the kava trade in relation to Pacific Island economies, regulations surrounding kava, and the rise (or fall) of the kava bar. At the time, the article asserted that the “sustainability of the kava trade is at risk” with sustainability referring to the “the development needs of current generations that must be met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
World trade policies have previously limited the trading potential of developing countries and “necessitated a rethinking of World Bank and International Monetary Fund policies on assistance to those nations.” It has been argued that trade policies need to concern with not only economic sustainability but social, political, and environmental sustainability particularly when it comes to reducing the poverty gap between rich and poor nations—fairer trade regimes are critical to this.
When it comes to exporting kava, there is a delicate balance between a focus on cultural continuity and commercial gain. Pollack argued that the sustainability of the kava trade is balanced between the following outcomes:
- Continuing the access to resources over both the short and long term
- Maintaining the availability of resources for both social and economic benefits
- Insuring that those benefits can accrue locally, as well as globally
Four ethnographic sketches detailed in the article illustrated that the “sustainability of the kava trade is dependent on a variety of practices in kava usage and sales, as well as cultivation of selected cultivars.” Over time, kava usage has “democratized” through the inclusion of non-noble men and women and consumption in kava bars local to the Pacific Islands and abroad has additionally provided income to farmers.
Forcing Kava into the Standards of Western Pharmaceuticals
The kava industry and trade can suffer from pharmaceutical companies’ demands for a “standardized” product—a demand and standard that one could argue reflects a contemporary form of “rule”/neo-colonialism/neo-imperialism. Kava’s biodiversity means that there are upwards of 120 varieties some of which have been grown and selectively developed to meet local and cultural environmental needs.
European and American pharmaceutical companies were previously lucrative outlets for kava farmers until German and European kava bans were implemented. This sudden ban “left kava farmers with plantations that no longer offered a cash return” pressuring kava traders to unite “both to fight the ban and strengthen other outlets for sale of [kava root].” Support from kava users, the Pacific Islands Forum, and academics as well the formation of the International Kava Executive Council and implementation of quality controls and standardization of the product shipped from the Pacific Islands were all said to have been key factors necessary for the resumption of kava trading.
However, forcing kava within Western “drug” protocols can have serious repercussions for the sustainability of the kava trade and constantly create obstacles that are difficult, and sometimes impossible, to address because of the nature of the kava plant. Variation is necessary because of the biodiversity of the kava plant and for the kava plant to be sustainably farmed yet Western entities continue to demonize and reject variation in the name of pharmaceutical standards.
Food for Thought
How can the kava industry cope with these standards? Should the kava industry even be held to these standards, or rather, should a new set of standards be implemented for the industry?