Re-envisioning Agriculture on Maui, with the Story Connective

Rebecca Rhapsody and Loxley Clovis of the Story Connective have put together an excellent series of podcasts and interviews that provide an introduction to agriculture on Maui. This post gives a short overview of their first podcast in the series, and the actual podcast can be listened to here.

The first podcast in the series: Re-envision Maui - Before and After Sugar is a concise overview of farming on Maui and puts the current situation in historical context. The material covered extends from the arrival of the first Hawaiians up to the current uncertainty surrounding the future of Maui's former sugarcane lands in the Central Valley.

The first Hawaiians brought with them a set of 20 Polynesian "canoe crops" that would serve as the foundation of island agriculture for many centuries. Hawaiian farmers developed a system of agricultural land management based on land units called ahupua'a that comprised one or more watersheds and extended from the islands' mountainous interiors to the coast. Each pie-slice shaped ahupua'a included a number of altitudinal and ecological zones from mountain forests to coastal wetlands, beaches, or fishponds that allowed for different types of crops to be grown and natural resources to be accessed.

Changes came quickly with the arrival of the first European explorers, whalers, and missionaries. Multiple social and ecological impacts happened simultaneously including the decimation of the native population by disease, the logging of native forests for the sandalwood trade, and the introduction of domesticated animals. The appropriation of Hawaiian lands by foreigners was greatly enabled by set of policies and laws passed in the Kingdom of Hawaii (under the guidance of foreign advisers) during the mid-Nineteenth Century, the Great Mahele or land division of 1848, and the Alien Land Ownership Act and Kuleana Act of 1850. In the aftermath of these laws the Hawaiian Kingdom and its people were dispossessed of much of their best agricultural land, and the ahupua'a system was replaced by individual private property ownership.

In the decades following the Great Mahele, ownership of the islands' prime agricultural lands became increasingly consolidated in the hands of foreign plantation owners. Largely descended from the early missionaries, this oligarchy of plantation and business owners came to be known as the Big Five. The 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy and the 1898 Territorial Annexation were largely driven by the business and political aspirations of plantation owners. Annexation cleared the way for expansion of the sugar plantations that along with pineapple plantations would dominate Hawaiian agriculture for more than a hundred years.

Sugarcane cultivation on Maui was enabled by a complex irrigation network that diverted streamflow from lush East Maui to the drier Central Valley through a series of ditches. With the advent of stronger chemical pesticides and herbicides and mechanized harvesting methods during the Twentieth Century, large-scale industrialized cane cultivation was carried out on tens of thousands of acres in Central Maui, and to a lesser extent in West Maui. These methods were combined with the chemical treatment and burning of cane fields prior to harvesting to remove the green leaves and ease transport and processing of the cane. Over the decades an increasing number of island residents took issue with the pesticide overspray and air pollution from cane burning, as well as soil erosion, ground water quality, and negative impacts on nearshore marine environments.

With the advent of international free trade agreements and increased competition, it became harder for Hawaiian sugar producers to compete globally. On January 6, 2016, Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar, a subsidiary of Alexander and Baldwin (hearkening back to the original Big Five) announced closure of the islands' last sugar plantation on Maui. A&B continues to own the land, and was recently given a three-year extension on its control of water resources via another of their subsidiaries, East Maui Irrigation Co, Ltd.

The end of sugarcane cultivation on Maui marks a new chapter for Maui and it's agricultural lands. Today Alexander and Baldwin is primarily a real estate development corporation, raising concerns for many on Maui that the island's rural character will be eroded by suburban sprawl. A&B has stated publicly that they plan to support diversified agricultural production on the former can lands, and there are also hopes that new approaches to farming will be incorporated that are better than industrial cane cultivation for the island's soils, air and water quality, and food security.

In closing, the hopes of many island residents are reflected in the following quote from the Story Connective podcast:

"Now that Maui's last sugar cane operation has closed down, a void has been left in Maui's land, economy, and psyche. Something is going to fill that void. What that something is has not yet come. There is a huge opportunity for something new to happen on Maui that will shape the landscape and culture for the coming centuries…

There is potential for Maui to combine the wisdom of the past with modern-day practices, and look toward the needs of the future, to become an example to the world of how to transition to a truly sustainable, responsible, and profitable agricultural model. What happens now will be written in history books for years to come. This is a time to explore the options available for a thriving resilient culture."

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(Maui fruit stand artwork by Julie Thurston --