Building a Bridge to the Future on the Stones of Kahikinui
From the overcast skies, a steady wind whips across the southern coast of Maui, beating down parched grasses and shrubs. Unmoved are the outcroppings of a`a lava, nearly as rugged as the day two centuries ago when they emerged from the Earth in one of the last eruptions of Haleakala. Kohala and Kaho`olawe sleep on the ocean beyond Maui`s immense mountain. Here, at Kahikinui, only a few distant cinder cones provide protection from the rising winds.
For most of two decades, Mo Moler watched as gusts blew away the tarps of his camps at Kahikinui. Like the ancient Hawaiians before him, when he finally was able to build his house, he chose pohaku to make solid, substantial walls. Survival at Kahikinui, Moler and other recent Hawaiian settlers of the place have learned, requires sensitivity and a willingness to adapt to its harshness.
And that harshness is all the more severe after a century and a half of cattle devastating the forest watershed. The land, which had never seen frequent rainfall, dried up even more, until it could not support cattle. In 1988, the situation was so stark that a visiting rancher from Wyoming felt compelled to call it to the attention of William Paty, then head of the Department of Land and Natural Resources. He told Paty he’d noticed “widespread neglect to many acres of land presently grazed with cattle onÉ specifically the Kahikinui area.” He continued:
“Not only are vast tracks of land being wantonly overgrazed and subject to forces of much erosion, but cattle are suffering the devastating effects of malnourishment and lack of water. The State of Hawai`i should take a good look at this deplorable situation and take immediate action to correct the problem they have allowed to develop. These landholders should be held accountable by the local community for their cruelty to animals and disregard for the natural resources of your state.”
The rancher’s comments, addressed to the DLNR, apparently did not reach the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, which has jurisdiction over the area. At the time, the DHHL had leased Kahikinui to Maui Factors.
In 1993, Aimee Anderson, a Maui Humane Society veterinarian, inspected several ranches operated by Maui Factors after receiving reports of animal cruelty. She discovered at Kahikinui, the fresh carcasses of nine cows that had died of thirst, and thirty skeletons.
When the Maui Factors lease ended in 1993, DHHL commissioner at the time, Hoaliku Drake, indicated that, for the first time since the mahele of 1848, the land would no longer be leased for pasture. Drake was responding to the interests of a group led by Moler who sought to rebuild a Hawaiian settlement in Kahikinui. The group, Ka `Ohana O Kahikinui, wanted not only to bring back native plants, but also to restore the native Hawaiian cultural life that had survived for ages until the start of ranching. Ka `Ohana offered a plan to create an “intentional community” that would undo some of the changes since then.
Typically, the DHHL requires infrastructure improvements – roads, water, sewers, phone, and electric lines – to be installed before allowing settlements. In the neighboring districts of Keokea and Waiohuli, the DHHL leased parcels but did not allow the families who leased the land to move onto it until the infrastructure was built. That delay frustrated Moler. “All these years, the DHHL had been telling us that the reason we are not on the land is because there is no infrastructure,” he says, “and then they turn around and tell us that they don’t have money for the infrastructure.” At that time, only a few jeep roads crossed Kahikinui`s deserted landscape.
Ka `Ohana members were willing to start building on the raw land, but suddenly the DHHL was concerned about the lack of water. This was the same agency that for most of the 20th century had leased Kahikinui to tenants whose cattle had nearly destroyed the moisture-replenishing forest. “Twelve years ago, commissioners told us that Hawaiians can’t live here because there is no water, and you can’t plant here,” Moler says. “So we called up our sisters and brothers in Hana and Ke`anae and asked for some huli [taro shoots] to show them that we can live here.”
Ka `Ohana planted a community garden amid the crumbling rock walls of the old St. Ynez Church. Some members also began to occupy tents around the church “base camp,” squatting there for longer and longer periods. This led to conflicts with the DHHL. Moler and his group devised a strategy: if Ka `Ohana asked the DHHL for permission to clear around the church and got no answer, Ka `Ohana would simply proceed to do the work. “Every time the department said ‘no,’ we took it for a ‘yes,’ and every time they said ‘wait,’ we took it for a ‘go,'” Moler says. “In our meetings, we would chant, ‘no means yes and wait means go.’ There were no confrontations, though, because we didn’t want to be victims, we just wanted to live on undeveloped land. Period. There were no arrests.”
Eventually, Ka `Ohana changed its approach. It started to ask the DHHL “how can we help you to help us?” Moler recalls. With the assistance of Julie Cachola of the Office of State Planning, Ka `Ohana wrote a land management plan. Aric Arakaki, a planner with the DHHL, worked with Ka `Ohana to write up the requisite state rules that would allow the kuleana leases to go forward. The DHHL adopted the rules in October 1998. Since then, seventy-six families have obtained 99-year leases for $1 a year.
Moler beams as he displays a copy of his lease. He laughs as he says that the group didn’t want any “Hawaiians in arrears, so we all paid up our $99 on the spot.” Having shown their commitment to the land through years of camping, hard work, and planning meetings, Ka `Ohana finally holds the paper rights to their land as well. Now the homesteaders must find ways to transport materials, build, dispose of sewage, find water, develop electrical power, and become a connected community to solidify their bond with Kahikinui.
At present, around 15 people live full-time in Kahikinui, and Moler’s stone house and a few other buildings are under construction. A commissioned architect designed houses suited to the windy and dry terrain in traditional kau hale style, which separates kitchens from other rooms so that potential fires can be more easily contained.
The large parcels encourage homesteaders to live with their extended families at Kahikinui. To keep the settlements attractive, a design committee of homesteaders oversees the developments. Composting toilets or septic tanks are required under lease terms and residents must recycle to minimize waste.
These conditions are models of a sustainable and intelligently constructed community, Arakaki says: “Kahikinui gave us the perfect opportunity to demonstrate to the DHHL that you can live off-the-grid affordably without the expensive infrastructure. Looking back, the ancient Hawaiians were 100 percent self-sufficient. The practices of indigenous people should be included in the planning and management of land.”
Life from the Forest
With their reverence for the natural beauty of the land, Kahikinui settlers are keenly aware that the quality of their own lives depends on the health of the mauka forest. Art Medeiros, a biologist who has been working to restore the nearby dry forest of Auwahi, helped the `ohana develop a forest protection plan. To ensure that the “protection and conservation goals established for the forest reserve may never be compromised,” the plan calls for a non-profit organization of citizens and homesteaders “independent from other community development entities.” Living Indigenous Forest Ecosystems, Inc. (LIFE) assumed that role in 1996, when the DHHL licensed the conceptual plan and gave LIFE control of 7,500 acres of the Kahikinui Forest Reserve.
The upland forest of Kahikinui, known to harbor 11 rare or endangered plants and 10 native bird species, has been reduced to 20 percent of its original size, according to the 1995 plan. Maui Factors was supposed to fence cattle out of the reserve, but did not. The exotic kikuyu grass planted to feed cattle has become a dominant ground cover, along with other invasive species associated with ranching. After its lease expired, Maui Factors was to remove its cattle, but Moler remembers cattle still loitering around St. Ynez church, looking for water and food. “The first chore we’d do every day was take a shovel and clean up the cow pies,” he says. Twice a year, Ka `Ohana organizes helicopter round-ups to reduce the numbers of wild cattle in the reserve, but their ecological damage continues as long as some are still left to trample, eat, and erode the injured forest.
Hunting in the reserve by the Kahikinui Game and Land Management `Ohana also helps to keep numbers of animals down. The club manages the goat, pig, deer, and game bird populations along with LIFE. Although hunting might be allowed in areas outside the forest, under the forest plan, “the purpose of hunting is the eventual elimination of all ungulates from the forest reserve.” Members of the hunting club must do service projects, such as road and cabin repair and fence-building, which helps LIFE’s mission to construct exclosures along with major fence lines to keep out ungulates. The exclosures protect Kahikinui’s rarest plants, including the only known population of ha`iwale (Cyrtandra oxybapha), consisting of between 250 and 300 plants. Fences also shelter koa seedlings planted during community service trips.
Help from Friends
Ka `Ohana has been frequently blessed by the visits of scholars, experts, and others whose studies have informed community plans and enriched settlers’ understanding of their history, or whose work has brought material improvements in their lives. If the community needs to drill a well, the upland band of koa and `ohia forest will be their watershed. To help the settlers find other sources of water, James Juvik, a geographer from the University of Hawai`i, researched the amount of water that could be collected by fog nets on the upper slopes. At 4,800 feet elevation, a 20 x 25-foot screen draws 1,500 gallons per day from the passing clouds, while a net at 7,800 feet reaps 4,500 gallons a day. DHHL committed $200,000 for a net that would capture around 10,000 gallons per day for the settlements, but later diverted the money to build more roads.
Sandwich Isle Communications received a grant to bring telephone access to homesteaders on DHHL lands. It spent more than $6 million to wire 76 Kahikinui lots. In the process, it also built a few roads, which opened up some of the remote lots. The Hawai`i National Guard also came to Kahikinui and grubbed combat roads, but the DHHL still needs to stabilize those roads. This is “slowly happening,” says Arakaki.
Two years ago Maui County paved a section of Pi`ilani Highway, which provides the only access to Kahikinui. Moler says the county wants to encourage tourists leaving Hana to take the southern route instead of retracing their tracks over the difficult Hana Highway. If the tourists oblige, they may patronize a proposed information center, museum, arts and crafts stand, and farmer’s market planned around St. Ynez church.
Despite the arid landscape, settlers want to support themselves with community gardens. To do this, they are considering growing crops hydroponically, which uses less water than more traditional in-ground plantings. They want to develop a nursery as well to provide seedlings for the upper forest and for an `iliahi (sandalwood) timber business. Youth and senior citizen groups have been given educational tours of the forest, and someday, eco-tourism might provide income for the Kahikinui homesteaders.
Whatever the homesteaders do in the future, Moler says, “they must be prepared for hard work.” The homesteads are for “the Hawaiian who feels more comfortable on undeveloped land, who wants to care for the land so it can care for us,” he adds. The monthly community meetings are intentionally local-style; formal votes are rejected in favor of consensus. Together, the homesteaders plant wiliwili, ti, ginger, taro, and sweet potato, and hope to have someday a communal kitchen.
For many homesteaders, the hard work of fighting to live on the unforgiving land, deprived of modern conveniences, has been inspired by the ways of their ancestors who lived on the same land. But learning the ways of their ancestors has been made all the more difficult by the destructive work of the cattle, which not only damaged the natural resources, but scarred cultural sites as well.
“Ranching activities have directly impacted the presence of archaeological sites in the area by the mechanized clearing of vegetation that took place to increase the available pasturage,” according to a 1994 archaeological survey of Maui done for the Hawai`i Geothermal Project. “In addition, the destruction to archeological sites from trampling and erosion caused by the passage of cattle and goats had major impact on the preservation of sites.” The spread of lantana and kikuyu grass in the exposed pastures further concealed sites. However, since Kahikinui was spared from any major development, much of the evidence of Hawaiian culture is still intact.
And because Kahikinui still holds a trove of ancient Hawaiian sites, in 1994, a team of archeologists from the University of California at Berkeley, led by anthropology professor Patrick Kirch, decided to do an intensive survey. The National Science Foundation granted $1.4 million for a three-year study focusing on the evolution of the Hawaiian culture as the environment was changed by agricultural lifestyles and population growth. To culminate their findings, Patrick Kirch edited Na Mea Kakiko o Kahikinui: Studies in the Archeology of Kahikinui, Maui. The publication dedicates that “It is primarily for the members of Ka `Ohana O Kahikinui that we have written this volume, to share with them our research findings that they may use them in their current efforts.”
The study found thousands of sites that demonstrated how the previous inhabitants used the land. For example, in the wetter upland areas, the ancient Hawaiians thoughtfully placed their houses on the smooth, hard pahoehoe lava flows, so the broken-up a`a fields could be used to grow sweet potato and dryland taro. This type of careful land management has always been necessary on the demanding slopes of leeward Haleakala. Thought the lands have been degraded, Mo Moler is not discouraged: “If 8,000 of our ancestors could live here 150 to 200 years ago, there’s no reason why today’s Hawaiians can’t live out here with modern technology,” he says.
As I depart, Moler and I touch noses and exhale in the traditional exchange of ha, the life-giving breath. The wind, breath of ten thousand ancients, swirls around us, and our ha joins theirs in perpetuating life at Kahikinui.
— Emma Yuen
Volume 13, Number 6 December 2002