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Anthropological View

An Anthropological View
by Kirk W Huffman

Thinking About Kava

Part Two



 
Anthropology

As I pen these lines, a charming German journalist who took the trouble to spend four hours interviewing me a few days ago should be scouring the pharmacies and health food shops of Vila (Ibiza town) to see if it is still at all possible to purchase any kava-based medicines in the former or any kava tablets in the latter. This interview, about Vanuatu and kava, came out of the last of the three lectures that I gave here at the end of February in the branch of the University of the Balearic Islands and organized by the Society of Friends of the Archaeological Museum of Eivissa (Ibiza) and Formentera. By the time you read this the resulting article in German will have already appeared in the press. The last lecture was particularly well attended, not just because the Museum always prepares a free wine and food buffet at the end of any series of lectures it organizes, but also because the topic, dealing with a medicinal plant with possible slightly mind-altering properties, is one that interests many people on the island. Eivissa has always been a slightly rebellious island, with its own mind, throughout its long history and continues to be so to the present day. A major difference today, though, and one that is not really spoken about in public too much, is that now the real inhabitants of the island, the Eivissencs, are in a minority in their own island. There are only approximately 31,000 Ibicencos in an island whose population is now thought to be about 100,000. This rather sad situation has only taken approximately two generations to come about and may unfortunately, sometime in the future, result in the extinction of Eivissenc language and culture unless the younger generation struggles to retain their special identity.

Back to Kava. As explained last week, Kava is the name given to a plant, and a drink made from the roots of that plant, that grows only in the Pacific. Well, that's where it should only be growing, but it has just been discovered very recently that large plantations of three-year old kava bushes now exist in Brazil and Guatemala. Why all the interest? Well, there's lots of money to be made from the kava plant. It would be rather interesting to find out which subspecies of the kava plant these plantations are growing. It is quite possible they originate from illegally 'exported' plantable material as the drinkable form of the plant traditionally grows only in the Pacific. This form of the plant cannot reproduce itself naturally. It has no flowers or seeds. It's whole distribution throughout the Pacific, covering nearly a third of the earth's surface, is purely man made and remember that this distribution was done centuries before the invention of modern transport. A rather formidable task, which obviously took centuries. The only way to replant the kava bush is to cut its branches from near the root base and then cut again that branch further up, giving you a 'branch twig' maybe 40cms in length. This you then stick into the fertile earth. You can also use a branch from different sub-species of the plant and stick this into the ground very close to the first. The roots that grow from these branches will join as one and the resulting root will combine the chemical and medicinal properties of both plants, thus creating a combined effect when the root is used for drinking. A new sub/sub species is born, and people in northern Vanuatu have been experimenting in this way for hundreds of years. To take such branches by canoe to plant on another island, the still moist branches are tightly wrapped in special leaves to keep the humidity in. In this way they can be transported for approximately 10 days before they lose their potential to be re-planted.

No Pacific nation in its right mind would knowingly sell plantable kava stems to outside interests in these days when, up until just a month or so ago, the export of dried, chopped, or powdered kava root is just about the only viable export (besides coprah, the dried and smoked meat of the coconut, used as a base for creams, shampoos and certain oils in Europe) that certain Pacific island states have. Over the last 15 years or so, as the kava export market has grown, Pacific island governments have periodically warned their inhabitants to be keep an eye open for ingratiating outsiders trying to sneak out of the islands with kava branches hidden in their suitcases. I remember one incident at the airport in Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu, about 1988 when a visiting Indian Fijian was caught by government quarantine officers trying to smuggle wrapped plantable kava branches out in his hand luggage. He was politely roughed up a little bit at the airport, I think, and it serves him right (I believe in diplomatic terms one would say he was 'given a polite dressing down')!

The search for indigenous plants with medicinal or other useful properties has become a major modern business and a rather serious threat to indigenous medicinal practitioners around the world. Only a very small percentage of the real traditional owners and users of these plants will ever see any return once a foreign company finds out about the plant and its uses. What is worse is that certain European, but mainly US companies are now in a mad rush to patent the genes of many of these plants. This would then, at least according to modern patent laws, make it illegal for traditional users of the plant to use it in its normal way without paying a fee to the patent-owning company! Sounds completely ludicrous, but it is actually true and this is happening now! Bioprospectors (and their illegal compatriots, 'biopirates') from the massive biotechnology and pharmacological industries (mostly US companies) are now combing the hidden corners of the earth's surface looking for unknown (to them), useful, plants. By early 2001, 5000 of the estimated 250,000 known plant species in the world had been screened for their medical potential. These companies are not only looking for new medicinal material, but also for new ingredients for luxury goods such as soaps, shampoos and perfumes (Radox in the UK have recently produced a bath gel with a kava base). Just a couple of years ago the French cosmetics company L'Oreal supposedly patented the use of kava in a hair treatment!

Well, I suppose that in modern legality maybe L'Oreal could theoretically patent the idea of them using a particular kava extract in their particular hair treatment, but such formalities will not carry much weight in, say, Vanuatu. The idea of 'white people' copyrighting elements of a plant that some of their ancestors developed would sound like some kind of ridiculously sick joke to certain clans in Vanuatu. Certain pharmacological companies have actually tried to patent or copyright kava (or its ingredients) itself as a medicinal supplement, but have so far not succeeded. What the European and U.S. companies do not realize is that the northern part of Vanuatu is home to one of the world's oldest and most complex forms of traditional copyright, a lot older and more complex than anything that exists in Europe. The only difference is that in Vanuatu these laws are not written down, but are passed down by word of mouth from generation to generation. Regarding recent modern attempts to patent or 'copyright' kava and its ingredients, I remember writing recently to a colleague and friend in UNESCO on this topic. I basically said that from the point of view of Vanuatu, it wouldn't matter if 'the white man' came up with a ton of legal documents showing they had copyrighted kava, or if they sent 100 high-powered lawyers (that term, through an accidental but accurate mis-hearing of the word during a trial in Vanuatu in the 1980s, is sometimes pronounced 'liars' by certain indigenous inhabitants) to hammer this point through. These documents and lawyers would be irrelevant for the traditional system there. The lawyers could find themselves in a situation where, theoretically, they could be fined by the chiefs for representing companies that had been attempting to 'steal traditional copyright' of kava from its traditional owners. It basically boils down to the fact that, with kava, the 'white man' has arrived too late, it was already 'copyrighted' and given by the Spirits possibly originally well over 2000 years ago. And who in the Pacific had heard of 'the white man' then? Nobody.

Some of the more isolated areas of the Pacific had not even heard of 'the white man' until very recently: what about the 250,000 inhabitants of the Waghi valley in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea who only heard about 'us' for the first time in the 1930s when an adventurous group of young Australian gold prospectors stumbled on to them? What about the tens of thousands of Dugum Dani peoples of the Balim valley high in the interior of neighbouring West Papua/Irian Jaya? 'We' did not even know of their existence until their vast valley was discovered from the air in the 1940s.They continued to have very little contact with the outside world until the late 1960s. Since the Indonesian take-over of that part of the island in the late 1960s, they have certainly had a lot more ‘contact', as at least up until very recently the Indonesians seemed to be intent on eradicating them. In 1973 in a very remote area of Vanuatu even I came upon certain clans and groups many of whom had never seen white people before, and they were as nervous as I was. They scratched my skin to see what colour I really was underneath. What about the Nukak-Maku forest nomads only 'discovered' in south-eastern Colombia in the early 1990s? What about the Jarawa negrito pygmies just recently 'contacted' in the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean whom the Indian government is now trying to remove from lands they have possibly been on for 40,000 years? 'We' have to realize that, in the world scheme of things, 'we' are relative latecomers and rather irrelevant for many corners of the world. All of these ancient societies have their own traditional medicinal plants and a detailed knowledge of them. 'Medicine' did not arrive with 'the white man'; it has been around for a long time in all corners of the world. What about the recent scandalous attempts by a US pharmacological company to patent the entire genetic material of the Neem tree used medicinally for centuries in India? Have 'we' no respect? Don't these insensitive companies realize that, in a morally correct world, it would be illegal to try and steal the rights of someone else's medicine without making some form of compensation? And if 'we' can't patent it, do we then have the right to seemingly engineer a situation where possibly other people are denied use to it? This is one aspect of the situation that seems to be pending in Europe with regard to kava.

The theme of this column at the moment may seem rather irrelevant to Eivissa/Ibiza, but it is not. I am dealing with themes here that affect, or will affect, us all; from rural peasant to disco clubber and those of you reading this in England or the US. It is basically to do with the ethics of who has the right to decide on and control certain aspects of life. Like all ancient, rurally-based, societies, Ibicenco peasants had/have a detailed knowledge of local plant and herbal medicines useful for most minor illnesses (but thanks also for the relatively recent introduction of modern techniques here to help take care of the more serious illnesses). Anyone, with the required knowledge, visiting one of the old peasant houses here in the hills will note the variety of plants around the houses. Most are not for decoration. There is sa pitra cactus, the combed fibres from inside its leaves used for the material for sandal soles; there is estepa, used for toilet paper and also, when rubbed with water producing a soapy liquid useful for washing dishes, tables, and so on and so on. Then there are the numerous medicinal plants for all sorts of minor aches and pains.

And some not so minor, too. I can speak from experience. In September last year I badly twisted my right ankle and spent two months on crutches. The ankle was badly swollen, red and painful, with difficult circulation, for nearly the whole of that period. Modern treatment, with prescribed painkillers did little to alleviate the problem. I was just about to give up when a close Ibicenco friend suggested I try a traditional local remedy. I did, and the swelling, pain and discomfort were gone in three days. One of the doctors at the hospital said later that if they could patent that remedy, they could make a fortune. But new legislation originating in Brussels and being funnelled to Madrid which eventually funnels it down here means that the island's oldest surviving 'herbolaria' (herbal medicine shop) in Vila (Ibiza town) will eventually have to close down. It looks like 'the big guns' are out to close down access to kava in Europe, too.

More in detail next week.

Kirk W Huffman

kirkwhuffman@liveibiza.com