A high-endemism deep-reef fish community at 300 feet, Kure Atoll, Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Every fish in the picture is a Hawaiian endemic species (not known anywhere else except Hawaii). Deep reefs at Kure Atoll were discovered to...
For centuries, the Native Hawaiian people struggled against the United States government to defend their land and customs. The fight continues in 2016, with scientists and the native population at odds over how to best preserve the ‘aina, or land.
Historically, scientific progress has almost always trumped Native Hawaiian rights and traditions. Land would be closed to the public, fenced off, and used for science. But co-ops and associations are trying new strategies to bring science and tradition together.
Most recently, this conflict can be seen in the expansion of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. When the expansion was proposed, Native Hawaiians protested the sudden seizure of their traditional lands by the federal government. Small gatherings and rallies followed until a rally at Honolulu’s Pier 38 in July drew 200 opponents of the expansion. Former Hawaii Governor George Ariyoshi addressed the crowd.
“We should not let the federal government come in and tell us what to do with our ocean,” he said.
Chefs and longline fishermen held signs saying “Fishing Means Food” and “MVP Most Valuable Poke,” a reference to Hawaii’s beloved raw-fish salad. Former Governor Benjamin Cayetano, former Senator Daniel Akaka, and Ariyoshi wrote a joint letter to the President about their opposition, which stated that “Native Hawaiian rights and Hawaii State rights have not been considered and there is no transparency in the process.”
At the start of August, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in conjunction with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service held two public meetings on O‘ahu and Kaua’i on the matter. Comments from the islands of Hawaii and Maui had to be submitted in writing.
On August 26, with the support of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), President Obama quadrupled the size of the monument under the Antiquities Act. Now, it covers 582,578 square miles of the northwestern islands and ocean.
Because of its no-catch, no-commercial fishing policy, this “blue park” will be a sanctuary for endangered species like the Hawaiian monk seal, the short-tailed albatross, and the blue whale. In fact, a quarter of the species found within the expanded monument’s territory do not live anywhere else in the world. Conservation on the islands in the monument is also crucial, because almost 87 percent of Hawaii’s endemic plant species are threatened with extinction, according to a release by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The monument, wrote Hawaii Governor David Ige in a letter to the President, “strikes the right balance at this time for the waters surrounding the Hawaiian Islands, and it can be a model for sustainability in the other oceans of planet Earth.”
Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument isn’t technically off limits to Native Hawaiians. In the initial proclamation signed by President George Bush in 2006, people can conduct activities within the monument’s area, including “the perpetuation of traditional knowledge and ancestral connections of Native Hawaiians to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands” as long as they have a permit. No Native Hawaiian has ever been denied a permit to the area in the ten years since the monument’s creation, but this access is not heavily publicized and the permitting process is lengthy.
With the federal legislation in place, protesters have largely dispersed. Fishermen are moving outside of the boundary and waiting to feel the economic impact. Promoted to a co-trustee of the marine monument, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs promises in a statement to “effectively advocate for Native Hawaiian rights and access.”
Native Hawaiians are also upset by the construction of one of the world’s largest and most powerful telescopes on their sacred mountain, Mauna Kea. In 2015, as construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope was set to begin, protesters repeatedly blocked road access to the mountain.
Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano, is a sacred ancestral site for Native Hawaiians with confirmed burial sites. The volcanic mountain—with its summit 13,796 feet above sea level—is one of the world’s most pristine areas for viewing the stars because of the clean air and distant light pollution. The $1.4 billion telescope would be 180 feet tall with a thirty-meter diameter mirror. Already the summit is home to thirteen smaller telescopes.
Backed by Hawaiian sovereignty groups and celebrities like Jason Momoa from the hit TV show Game of Thrones, the “We Are Mauna Kea” movement and protest continued until the Hawaii Supreme Court revoked permits for the telescope’s construction at the end of 2015, deciding the state’s process had been flawed.
After more than twenty public hearings and a promise that a portion of its yearly $1 million lease will go to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the project still remains in limbo with officials studying alternative sites and Judge Riki May Amano hearing the contested case on the permits.
A poll conducted by Ward Research Inc. found that Hawaii (or Big) Island residents support the telescope’s construction by a 2-to-1 margin. But some Hawaiians maintain that these polls do not accurately reflect the native population, which makes up less than 30 percent of the Big Island, according to the 2015 U.S. Census release.
The people just don’t trust the state, a disconnect that can be clearly read in Hawaii’s history.
Since the “discovery” of the islands in 1778 by Captain Cook, the Hawaiian people used the spirit of aloha, which means to act with peace or affection or compassion, when it comes to outsiders. That spirit hasn’t always been reciprocated.
Schools teach us that Hawaii became a state on August 21, 1959, and before that it was the site of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. But how did Americans come to occupy the island chain? How did they come to own the territory?
They did not pay for it.
Throughout the nineteenth century, the Hawaiian monarchy allowed missionaries, ranchers, whalers, and traders to settle on the islands until disgruntled American businessmen backed by Marines overthrew Hawaii’s government and set up their own republic. These businessmen banned the teaching of the Hawaiian language and culture. This illegal overthrow of the sovereign nation was even opposed by President Grover Cleveland, who pushed for the restoration of the Hawaiian Kingdom to no avail.
In 1898, Congress voted to annex Hawaii, making it an American territory. During this time, lands were taken from natives who lacked satisfactory documentation to prove the land belonged to them. The entire island of Lāna‘i was sold off to Jim Dole for a pineapple plantation.
Fast forward to the attack on Pearl Harbor. The American government declared martial law and took over the island of Kaho‘olawe for training and bomb testing. It wasn’t until 1990—long after World War II was over—that President George H. W. Bush finally ordered an end to live-fire training. It took four more years for the Navy to return the land to the state. A ten-year cleanup followed and the Navy managed to clear 75 percent of the island of unexploded hazards, but shrapnel and more still remain on and under the soil’s surface today.
Even in the case of the telescope, the University of Hawaii—which would be granting access to the land—has a history of prioritizing scientific research over natural resources, according to a 1998 audit.
So where does the greater good lie? How should Hawaii balance science and tradition, to protect Hawaii’s species and ocean in a way that incorporates Native Hawaiian cultures? Something has to change for the Hawaiian people to trust the United States government.
In the bustling capital, Honolulu, the Hawaii Conservation Alliance and its members prioritize the incorporation of native culture into current conservation practices. With more than twenty members in federal, state, private, and educational organizations, the group is working to evolve the general view on conservation from a “keep out, animals only” stance to a “let’s do this together” ideal.
Leading this effort by example is the Nature Conservancy of Hawaii, with Samuel ‘Ohukani‘ōhi‘a Gon III as its senior scientist and cultural adviser. Gon held a workshop at the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s World Conservation Congress this September to help attendees understand the rights and resources natives bring to conservation, and inspire an increase in the useful practices and talents of indigenous peoples in their communities.
Gon and other members also sponsored Motion 83: Affirmation of the Role of Indigenous Cultures in Global Conservation Efforts, which requested that guidelines regarding participation of indigenous peoples in conservation projects be developed to acknowledge the value of indigenous customs when it comes to natural resources. The motion states that these requests should be met through learning the regional history of the people and by rebuilding and maintaining relationships in those communities. The motion passed.
“We work very closely with local communities who are trying to find ways to maintain their relationships with land and water, and to actually affect changes in law that puts them in the middle of a collaborative management relationship with the state of Hawaii,” says Gon.
The Nature Conservancy started work on the islands in the 1970s by raising money and purchasing countryside in Kipahulu Valley which did not have clear claim or titles. The group then donated this land to the Halea-kalā National Park. In one transaction, natives lost their historic lands because they lacked the proper paperwork. Not a good start for the conservancy in the Hawaiian community.
After that, the Nature Conservancy made changes and established a headquarters in Honolulu, creating a board with local community leaders and businesses. It hired people from the area and listened. “We listen to what they are concerned about, what kind of access they are interested in, and see whether or not that is possible,” says Gon. “In many cases, it is.”
On the island of Moloka‘i, the Nature Conservancy’s Pelekunu Preserve is designed to protect the free-flowing stream there. According to Gon, the conservancy remains attentive to the idea of traditional access. Families who have traditional rights, who used the valley and harvested the seasonal shellfish from the stream, are still able to do so in the preserve.
When the Nature Conservancy needs to remove feral animals (like pigs and goats) from higher elevation areas, it contacts local hunters. Sometimes these hunters are aided by helicopter access.
Instead of buying or owning the terrain itself, the conservancy creates partnerships in which people retain private ownership to their land while working with conservancy scientists to establish watersheds, manage feral animals and weeds, or build fences. It puts the power of change in owners’ hands and gives people responsibility and a purpose to care for their piece of the earth.
These are the compromises the Hawaiian people are looking for. These are the sorts of policies and strategies that need to be implemented and publicized. Because of Hawaii’s history, it takes understanding, education, and flexibility to build a publicly accepted conservation plan.
“There will always be people who have trouble with anything that is perceived as closing the land,” says Gon. “Some of those frictions are longstanding from when conservationists weren’t ready to look seriously at how indigenous peoples should be incorporated in conservation. But that is changing.”
Aja Hannah is a freelance writer and traveler who calls Hawaii home. She blogs about issues of adversity, conservation, travel, and more at ajahannah.blogspot.com.