Calls for a Covid 'kava bubble' as supply from Pacific to Australia dries up

Tess Newton Cain
·4-min read

The questions are asked quietly, but urgently: “Kava, do you have any? Do you know where to get any? Have you heard what they are paying for it in Sydney?”

When Pasifika meet in Australia, it is often kava that dominates: now, it is the absence of it.

The traditional brew, made from the kava plant and central to so many of the Pacific’s social interactions, is in vanishingly short supply, an unlikely, unhappy, corollary of Covid shutdowns.

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And the shortage is harming businesses across the region.

Kava – usually brackish, bitter and mildly euphoric – is made by crushing the roots and rhizome of the kava plant, and mixing the powder with water.

It is drunk, as Faonetapu Takiari, president of Pasifika community group the United Nesian Movement, told the Guardian, whenever Pasifika gather.

“Kava is present at nearly every Pasifika occasion from formal ceremonies to social gatherings and used as a medium to share our culture, carry out traditions and promote social cohesion through talanoa [conversation]”.

Preparing kava at Mauri Kava Bar in Suva.
Preparing kava at Mauri Kava Bar in Suva. Photograph: Leon Lord/AFP/Getty Images

In Pacific island nations with little Covid spread, but strict lockdowns and curfews, the traditional late-night sessions have been dramatically curtailed. In Fiji, where the drink is known as yaqona, there was even a temporary ban on sharing the bilo, the communal cup from which the kava is traditionally supped.

Meanwhile, in Australia, supplies run ever lower. The powder made from the plant usually costs around $50 a kilogram, but, in the quiet conversations around Australia, the prices mentioned now are up to 10 times that.

It is legal to bring kava into Australia, but only when personally carried on a plane or ship, and strictly limited to four kilograms per adult per trip. With the Covid-19 pandemic shutting down almost all travel across the Pacific, the kava supply has rapidly dried up.

And while carrying kava into Australia is legal, posting the plant or powder into the country is not, regarded by the Australian Border Force as an illegal importation.

That hasn’t stopped people trying.

Australian Border Force port operations commander Leo Lahey said officers at international mail centres had seen attempts to mail kava into the country increase more than 30-fold.

In January and February, just 67kg of kava was intercepted, Lahey said. “In July and August there’s been 739 detections weighing a total of 2.2 tonnes. So the increase is quite extraordinary.”

It might never have come to this. In early 2019, just days after visits to Vanuatu and Fiji where the issue of kava – if not a bilo or two of it – was raised with Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, his government made two announcements: that the personal limit of kava importation would be doubled from two kilograms to four, and that it would hold a trial of commercial importation of kava during 2020.

Morrison stressed the move was recognition of the centrality of kava to many Pacific cultures. But nearly two years on, a kava impasse is proving a thorn in the side of relations between the Pacific and Australia.

First, the trial of commercial importation was quietly “deferred” on the basis that, because of Covid-19, health authorities did not have sufficient capacity to undertake the necessary consultations and monitoring.

This has not been well received with kava producers and exporters in Pacific island countries who have been waiting years to access what should be one of their largest and most accessible markets.

Joseph Brun, owner of Brun’s Export in Vanuatu, said he had forestalled plans to plant a further 100 hectares of kava given the uncertainty of Australia’s position.

“It had created a positive impact to our business and a good outlook on Australia, we saw it as a potential to move from it into commercial importation.”

The second issue has been that resolutely closed borders across the Pacific have meant that the movement of kava between the island nations and Australia by way of the personal allowance has almost entirely dried up.

Cue shortages, and skyrocketing prices for what little kava is available.

Brun told the Guardian he gets about five requests a week from people in Australia who want him to mail them kava. And with his exports down 70% thanks to Covid, opening up a “kava bubble” with Australia would be a welcome fillip to his business.

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In Australia, Takiari said he “absolutely” believed people already in the country who want to use kava should be able to have their personal allowance mailed to them.

“The pros of allowing kava into Australia … will benefit both Pacific communities and Australia as a whole, as kava use traditionally promotes positive social cohesion and cultural integration.”

The Guardian approached the Australian government for comment, but did not receive a response by publication.