Friday, October 3, 2003

Hawaii Pacific Islands Kava Festival organizers Dr. Rainer Bussmann, left, Dr. Sam Gon III, Dr. Alan Teramura, Kumu John Keola Lake, Kawika Winter, Dr. Will McClatchy, Dr. H.C. Skip Bittenbender and Jonathan Yee.

kava’s mystery

Jonathan Yee's recollections of the famous Hawaiian children's book "Pua Pua Lena Lena and the Magic Kiha-Pu," are nearly as vivid as the glorious illustrations splashed across its pages. The legend of a magical dog and his search for awa, the Hawaiian plant from which a soothing, slightly intoxicating brew is made, piqued Yee's interest in the mysterious shrub at an early age.

Hawaii Pacific Islands

Kava Festival

Where: Lyon Arboretum, 3860 Manoa Road
When: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. tomorrow
Admission: Free
Call: 988-0464
Notes: A free shuttle service will run from about 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. between the arboretum and Manoa Recreation Center. Park along Manoa Road and look for shuttle stops.

Yee recalls how his father, a science and math instructor and faculty advisor of the Samoan club at Chaminade University, took a keen interest in Hawaiian political and cultural affairs in the 1970s, and how tagging along with his dad to awa -- known most commonly throughout the world as kava -- drinking ceremonies helped him to understand its importance in Polynesian societies as a social lubricant and ceremonial centerpiece.

"Its effects -- relaxation, clarity of mind -- are subtle, and it puts you at ease and gives you a sense of well-being," explains Yee, who first tried the bitter beverage as a teenager.

"I didn't think much of it at first, because at that age, it's hard to get past the flavor. But when you begin to appreciate it for its effects, you develop a taste for it. Now, I think it's kind of pleasant, actually."

As founder of the Hawaiian Kava Center, which sells both fresh and powdered kava, Yee feels that the local kava industry, which has seen a downturn in business in recent years, could be revived in part, by a greater awareness of kava's benefits. As one of the many organizers of this weekend's Hawaii Pacific Islands Kava Festival at Lyon Arboretum, believed to be the first of its kind in the nation and perhaps the world, Yee says the interest in the cultural aspects of kava are as strong as interest in the drink.

Included among tomorrow's attractions will be booths featuring crafts, plants, food and drink and information; plus live performances by Kilinahe, Ernie Cruz Jr. and many more musicians; native speakers; kava artifacts; kava taste testing; culinary kava creations by Hawaii chefs such as Mariposa's Doug Lum and the Kahala Mandarin's Wayne Hirabayashi; and Hawaiian activities including holua sledding, poi pounding, kapa beating and Hawaiian tattooing. A bus service will help shuttle attendees along Manoa Road.

"It's a wonderful way for people to gain a better understanding of Pacific Island cultures and kava. We have a lot of opportunities there for people to learn something about this plant and to appreciate it," Yee says.

Kawika Winter mixes a serving of kava in a carved wooden ceremonial bowl and then serves it up in a coconut shell before tasting the brew.

IT WASN'T SO long ago, however, that a booming worldwide kava market was in danger of collapse due to fears over its safety as an over-the-counter product. In response, organizers of tomorrow's kava festival have invited several Hawaii-based researchers to share their kava findings with attendees.

In 1999, claims that people taking kava extracts were developing liver complications began appearing in Germany and Switzerland. Kava's defenders argue that of the 33 reports, most did not make the crucial distinction between kava drinkers and those with pre-existing liver conditions, or those who had also been consuming alcohol or taking hepatotoxic drugs. Furthermore, all but one report concerned users who consumed tablets made from parts of the kava plant normally discarded in traditional preparation.

Earlier this year, a team of researchers from the University of Hawaii at Manoa found a likely culprit in these cases when they determined that pipermethystine, an alkaloid found in certain kava scraps, but absent in the root from which the kava beverage is prepared, proved harmful to liver cell cultures.

In 2001, at the height of kava's popularity, Hawaii boasted 65 farms and amassed $585,000 in crop revenues, according to the Hawaii Agricultural Statistics Service. The following year however, sales dipped 88 percent to around $70,000 after several countries banned kava on the basis of the European reports.

"It took a tremendous hit," Yee says. Growers with strong commercial ties to European manufacturers were forced out of business.

Still, kava has yet to be banned in the United States. This, Yee believes, is due to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's superior scientific standards in determining product safety. "When you look at the fundamentals here, you've got a natural plant and these synthetic medicines," says Yee, who suspects kava's opponents -- primarily wealthy pharmaceutical companies -- would need few resources and only scant scientific data to create enough hysteria to prevent consumers from making kava a viable alternative to prescription drugs.

"Would it be in your best interest to support a product you don't sell? Obviously not," Yee says. "So who's going to spend the hundreds of millions of dollars to prove that it's safe? Who's going to support kava in that sense? You can't patent it."

DR. GAUGAU TAVANA, director of education for the National Tropical Botanical Garden on Kauai, was also skeptical of the European reports. "My immediate reaction was it can't be true because I myself, am a Samoan and I come from a village where we used this plant every day.

"For thousands of years, Polynesians in general have been using the same crop, not only as a medicinal plant, but also for ceremonial purposes. Yet I have never seen a problem with it. So when I read this, I was shocked. I said, 'This cannot be true.'"

In May 2002, Tavana and renowned ethnobotanist Dr. Paul Cox, on a research sabbatical from his position as director of the NTBG, headed a study expedition to Samoa in search of answers. "We knew there were a lot of people there who actually plant and process and use kava on almost a daily basis," explains Tavana, who, as guest speaker at the kava festival, plans to share his findings with the public.

"We interviewed people who used kava regularly and asked if there were any problems with kava. They said no. In fact, they said kava has helped them. It's a medicinal plant that has been used by many indigenous communities for thousands of years with no problem."

The group visited a village hospital in search of any possible link between patients with liver ailments and kava use, though in each case, doctors attributed complications to alcohol, not kava. Through three weeks of interviews and research, no serious health incidents were reported among kava users. The findings did not come as a surprise to the group.

"I think it's a question of credibility and economics," says Tavana, on his decision to challenge the European claims. "Another concern is culture, because when you question the credibility of kava, you're questioning the cultures of the Pacific. That's really dangerous because kava is very much a part of culture all over the Pacific Islands. You go to every island and they perform a kava ceremony which is probably the highest ceremony they perform. It's a part of every day life."

Tavana says more quantitative research in the Pacific islands is planned and he expects further experimentation and medical data will bolster his preliminary findings. "Ultimately, our goal is to see the scientific community back us up and support our studies. If this thing will be turned around, it will have to be done scientifically. It is my hope and the hope of many that we will undo the harm that has already been done."

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