Islanders shocked as Australia moves to ban kava

Feb 20, 2015, 02:06 PM

Pacific Islanders in Australia are angry over a federal government move to ban kava.

Stefan Armbruster SBS World News 18 FEB 2015

(Transcript from World News Radio)

Claims organised gangs of Pacific Islanders are smuggling kava into Northern Territory Aboriginal communities will see the federal government ban the traditional drink in Australia.

Existing import limits will be abolished, a move that has angered Pacific islanders.

The proposed ban comes as Australian aid funds the development of bottled kava drinks as an export industry in Fiji.

Stefan Armbruster reports

The drinking of kava is an ancient Pacific islander custom, now regularly practiced in Australia

(SFX of clapping)

The claps are a signal appreciation.

This kava club gathers regularly in Brisbane but soon these sessions could be illegal.

Federal Indigenous Affairs minister and Northern Territory Senator Nigel Scullion is on a mission.

"We accept people practising their culture in this country. Of course we do. But when it is perverted and redirected, and to harm our First Australians, it isn't a right, it's a privilege. But I'm an advocate unashamedly for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia. That's my job and I think it should be banned and I will continue pursuing it until it is banned."

A total ban on kava imports because of the actions of a few has shocked the tens of thousands of Pacific Islanders in Australia.

"It makes me angry, it makes me very, very angry."

Zane Yoshida is an Australian citizen from Fiji who regularly has kava sessions at his house and is the founder of Taki Mai, a company that makes bottled kava drinks.

"We definitely deserve to have kava as part of our traditional cultural practices, even in Australia. If anything, it has been a positive influence on the Fijian community. Even the youth in Australia, as an alternative to alcohol."

Kava is already illegal in Northern Territory Aboriginal communities in Arnhem Land because of the health, social and financial impacts.

NT police Detective Superintendant Tony Fuller of the Drug and Organised Crime Division has long worked in the remote communities.

"Basically what kava does is it compounds existing health and substance abuses issues in the communities, so what it does is it adds one more layer of problems to the community."

Two kilos of kava per person can legally be brought into Australia from Pacific Islands like Fiji.

"Generally it's brought into Australia by Pacific Island groups, and we're seeing what we call stockpiling in places like Sydney and Brisbane, and then the couriers will either bring it up by plane or mail it or sometimes they'll just drive it up."

NT police have seized about 10 tonnes since 2009 and made more than 200 arrests.

"The vast majority of offenders who bring it into the Northern Territory are Tongan, of Tongan descent. There are obviously some Tongans out there who don't abuse it. That said we have a significant amount of Aboriginal people we are arresting."

Penalties include prison terms of up to eight years for quantities over 25 kilograms.

Kava costs about $30 a kilo overseas, once in Arnhem Land it sells for about $1000.

Senator Nigel Scullion says kava smuggling is big business.

"There's been I think over seventeen busts over 100 kilo and one of the things this signifies is that this is a organised criminal activity. The size of the busts, the sophistication of communication, this is significant organised criminal activity and with significant organised crime comes other activities. People say, 'We are drinking kava today, but we have a suite of drugs for you'. "

Kava has a distinctive taste.

It comes from the root of a pepper tree, and has a relaxing and slightly numbing effect.

Pacific islanders enjoy sharing kava, much like a cup of tea or coffee in other cultures, but it is drunk in much larger quantities for the e...