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Notes from Hawai’i

by Shepherd Bliss Big Island, Hawai'i

The Hawai’ian Islands are besieged. Multinational corporations and tourists contribute to over-development and bring invasive plants and animals that upset the balance of nature. But a resurgence of indigenous culture, including sustainable agriculture, has been occurring in recent years.

Mainlanders have fantasy images of Hawai’i. Television, movies, and romantic stories portray it as a “paradise” for the wealthy to play. But to native Hawaiians and the rich bio-diversity of plants and creatures, there is another Hawai’i.

Hawai’i is the most isolated occupied landmass in the world, more than a couple thousand miles from the nearest populated land. But Hawai’i’s native rainforests are endangered by alien species, such as bamboo and miconia, which has already devastated 75 percent of Tahiti’s native forest. Wild pigs, mongoose, and other invaders damage delicate ecosystems. Many of Hawai’i’s indigenous plants and animals are already extinct from competition by aliens and the destruction of habitats by humans.

Sea turtles are among the threatened species. “Remind them: We are all children of the sea,” Maui teacher Sam Ka’ai closes the new book “Fire in the Turtle House: The Green Sea Turtle and the Fate of the Ocean,” by Osha Gray Davidson.

It documents the growing damage to ocean ecosystems. Native birds, such as the Hawaiian goose and crow, have been particularly besieged. Of Hawai’i’s eight main islands, Oahu, with the large capital city of Honolulu, and Maui are built-out and over-crowded.

Though wild areas still exist on the Big Island, it is also threatened. But grassroots movements such as “Keep Kealakekua Wild” have grown. It is successfully keeping a wealthy developer from adding more houses and golf courses to the Kona coast.

But the pressure to develop mounts.

Indigenous Resurgence

One and a quarter million people live in Hawai’i, but over six million visit each year. As tourists and immigrants crowd the islands, Hawai’i is also experiencing a resurgence of indigenous culture. Though less than 10,000 full Hawaiians remain, with a much larger number of part Hawaiians, their political presence is increasing. A movement for sovereignty grows more visible and assertive.

Hawai’i is the most multi-cultural state in the union. Caucasians comprise about one-fourth of the population, with Japanese nearly a fourth. Other large ethnic groups are Filipino, Chinese, Korean, and Black. About one-third of the population is mixed.

Locals advocate the intrinsic value of land (aina) and the old ways. Use of the beautiful Hawaiian language expands, as does cultural pride in Hawaiian music and the authentic hula.

Pele, goddess of volcanoes and fire, is a living presence revered by many locals. Kilauea Volcano began erupting again in l983 and continues to this day, indicating Pele’s power. Big Island locals protest the growth of observatories on Mauna Kea, a volcano nearly 14,000 feet high.

Scientists from many nations have perched on the mountain that native Hawaiians consider holy. They desecrate sacred sites, polluting the mountain and water. Thirteen large astronomical telescopes already dominate the volcano and scientists want to build eight more.

Cultural practitioners continue their spiritual ceremonies on the revered mountain. With all the high-tech equipment it now “looks like a junkyard,” according to Kimo Pihana, quoted by Hawaiian writer Leslie Lang in the popular bi-weekly “Hawaii Island Journal.” Pihana adds, “It really angers me. I felt hurt and actually cried.”

“It’s clear to Hawaiians that things are not working the way they are now,” commented one Hawaiian, who requested anonymity. “Hawaiians, as a group, are under-educated, under-employed, at the top of the list for serious health problems, over-represented in prison, and at the bottom of the list for owning land and homes. In their own land!”

“So the sovereignty issue is strong and is not going to go away,” he added. “There are many different models of what form sovereignty could take, including some sort of self-rule over lands that were illegally taken from the Hawaiians years ago.”

The great singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, who died in 1997, laments “this modern city life” with its “traffic lights” and “railroad tracks.” He sings to people to “Cry for the gods. Cry for the people. Cry for the land that was taken away. And then yet you’ll find Hawai’i.”

Even after decades of oppression, especially by Euro-Americans, most Hawaiians remain open and receptive, practicing their ancient aloha. The basis of Hawaiian aloha culture does not easily translate into English. It means love, compassion, greetings, and friendship. Aloha includes respect for people, family, nature, and spirit.

Agriculture positive developments in recent years include the growth of organic and small family farms. Large monocrop corporations dominated Hawai’i for decades, using many chemicals on monocrops like sugar and pineapple.

In 1922 James Dole bought the entire island of Lanai for slightly over a million dollars. The so-called Big Five controlled 96% of the sugar crop by 1933.

Over the decades Hawai’i’s land and fisheries have been over-harvested by people and over-grazed by cattle. But the global corporations have been abandoning the islands for cheaper labor, leaving damaged land to be restored by sustainable practices such as permaculture.

Since the crash of Japan’s economy in the l990s, many Japanese corporations have been leaving as well.

Hawai’i’s indigenous culture is based on agri-culture, including the root crop taro and the food poi made from it. According to the well-researched and authoritative “Environment Hawai’i” monthly newsletter, “Across the islands, the cultivation of taro is experiencing a resurgence.” Taro is important not only as a food source, but for its community building value.

Tourists, telescopes, developers, alien plants and animals besiege Hawai’i. Some global corporations and individuals profit by these invasions. At continuing risk are native people, plants, animals, sustainable agriculture, delicate ecosystems, and the islands themselves.

Shepherd Bliss owns the organic Kokopelli Farm in Sebastopol and can be reached at sb3@pon.net

Shepherd Bliss teaches college part time, farms, and has contributed to two-dozen books. He can be reached at: 3sb@comcast.net.

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