By Zane Yoshida

Cyclone Pam and the Effects on Kava Production

The devastation caused by Cyclone Pam, which hit Vanuatu back in March of this year, has also hit kava production on the islands.

While the rebuilding process has started to piece the country back together, following one of the worst natural disasters in Vanuatu’s history, the kava farmers and the industry as a whole may take longer to recover.

Kava is a slow-growing crop that generally takes between three and six years to mature. So there is no “quick fix” for the loss felt by the local farmers and the damage it has done to the economy of Vanuatu.

Coping with the devastation

Even in the immediate aftermath of the cyclone, kava was a comfort for many locals, as they came to terms with what had happened to their home. Reuters reported the following:

“Ignoring calls to stay at home, men were gathering among the debris of blasted trees and twisted corrugated iron to swap news of the storm over a drink of kava, a mildly intoxicating brew that is deeply embedded in the social fabric of Pacific islanders.”

Between 11 and 15 people lost their lives because of the cyclone; the country was thankful it wasn’t more, with massive damage caused across the chain of islands, which lie to the west of Fiji.

Damage to kava production

Reuters also reported about the “devastated kava crop”, which is “a major export and vital source of cash for subsistence farmers in the South Pacific island nation.” Prime Minister Joe Natuman said:

“The economy will be seriously affected. The tourism sector will be affected … Kava will also be affected.”

A Radio Australia report estimated that 96 per cent of the country’s root crops were damaged, according to the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries. Damage to the kava crop was estimated by Vincent Lebot, a French geneticist based in Vanuatu, who suggested that about a third of the country’s crop had been destroyed.

The southern island of Tanna was particularly severely hit. The following comment from Lebot shows how far-reaching the impact of the kava crop is in the South Pacific:

“The impact will be very severe on the local economy. Many children continue to go to school because their parents pay the school fees thanks to kava.”

Cultural effects

Because kava is deeply embedded in the fabric of South Pacific life, damage to its availability also affects the region culturally and spiritually.

As well as being a much-loved social drink, and a way of bringing parties together to talk, kava has long been the drink of chiefs and spiritual leaders in the region. According to Apo Aporosa, from New Zealand’s Massey University:

“Kava is the dominant cultural icon for Pacifica people and the icon of identity for them…When a child is born, kava is presented and for a lot of Pacifica people, they believe that if you fail to do that, the child’s life is cursed.”

Ronnie’s Nakamal, a particularly well-known kava bar in the capital, Port Vila, was razed to the ground by the cyclone. This bar was a 28-year stalwart of the kava scene, with owner Ronnie Watson introducing the delights of kava to countless tourists and expats, as well as locals. The Australian reported:

“The only thing left standing is a big, white freezer with a drum of kava inside that had been mixed the night before.”

There were over 100 kava bars in Port Vila before the cyclone. Kava in Vanuatu is known for being stronger than in Fiji, because the locals there usually drink it without drying the root first. This means that it can be a little “unpredictable”.

With the recent devastation from the cyclone, the whole of the kava industry in Vanuatu is set to become a little unpredictable. Best wishes for a quick recovery!