Taro Farmers Struggle To Preserve Historic Values of Ancient Lo`i, Auwai

posted in: November 2001 | 1

At Chris Rathbun’s lu`au leaf farm in the lush, wet valley of Waipi`o, the ancient auwai have always worked perfectly, he says. But every place he’s tried to fiddle with an auwai or do his own maintenance, the water doesn’t flow just right and things don’t work as well.

“They worked on this for a thousand years. To say I know how to do it is absurd,” Rathbun says of engineering the perfect auwai.

Rathbun has been farming taro for more than a decade in Waipi`o. Last year, he and a hui of friends and Waipi`o neighbors scraped together more than a million dollars to purchase Laupahoehoe Nui, an isolated strip of land two valleys north of Waipi`o. Once a small but active village, Laupahoehoe Nui has not seen taro grown there for most of the last century, since shortly after the previous owners leased it out for taro culture at the turn of the 20th century. Families lived in Laupahoehoe Nui until the late 1920s. But over the years, with access only by boat or via a long and difficult overland trail, the valley has turned into a dark, tropical ghost town.

Rathbun’s dream is to revive the old lo`i system at Laupahoehoe Nui, grow enough taro to be self sufficient, and perhaps have the lo`i be an outdoor classroom one day. With the help of a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and from a former archaeology professor, Rathbun has been able to obtain an extensive archaeological survey of the area. In this respect, he is one of the lucky ones.

“As people in 2001 begin digging them up and slowly washing them out into the ocean, we will lose our chance to look for that stuff. Kalo is great stuff, but Native Hawaiian life was about a great deal more than taro.” – Peter Mills, archaeologist

Throughout the state, others share the dream of growing taro on lands farmed by the greatest taro farmers in the world. While the state encourages lo`i restoration, fulfilling its archaeological requirements can be very expensive. So expensive, that some have destroyed sites to avoid having to pay for surveys.

But “haste makes waste,” the saying goes. And when it comes to reviving ancient Hawaiian taro systems, the consequences of winging it may not only be wasteful in that it destroys a priceless historical record, but short-sighted as well, in that it second-guesses the work of a people unsurpassed in taro expertise. As efforts to restore Laupahoehoe Nui and areas on others islands show, even apart from state requirements that archaeology be paid due respect, studying the archaeology of ancient taro lo`i is in itself well worth the effort.

Laupahoehoe Nui

Clearing out the old lo`i is relatively easy, Rathbun says, but preserving the archaeology is another matter. “It’s almost a paint by numbers thing,” he says of the clearing work. “Everything is laid out. You just have to fill things in.”

Traditionally, any development on state land or on land in the state-designated Conservation District prompts the state Historic Preservation Division to requests archaeology surveys of the area.

Rathbun points to crumbling sections of stone lo`i walls, the mark of rooting feral pigs introduced to the valley several years ago. Before any lo`i are restored, the pigs must die, he says, or the archaeology will continue to be destroyed. Even so, he is eager to start restoration. Climbing barefoot through the overgrowth that has shrouded the lo`i in shadow, Rathbun says he’d have taken a chainsaw to the many trees and hacked away if a friend hadn’t persuaded him to wait.

Last August, the Pacific Biomedical Research Center applied for and received a grant of nearly $30,000 from the EPA for a “Laupahoehoe Nui Restoration Project.” With that money, Rathbun was able to helicopter in a group of scientists, who took pollen cores, algae, charcoal and other samples, and mapped the place with measuring tape and compasses. Among those scientists was University of Hawai`i at Hilo archaeology professor Peter Mills, who discovered about 60 lo`i terraces Rathbun hadn’t noticed in his regular visits over the years. How the lo`i will be restored may require further assistance from Mills. Until the pigs are gone, the lo`i will remain dormant.

An Archaeologist’s View

When it comes to lo`i restoration projects, some archaeologists will volunteer their services. According to Rathbun, he approached Mills, whose classes he had taken at UH-Hilo and who, Rathbun knew, was interested in the area.

Mills jumped at the chance to survey Laupahoehoe Nui. In 1972, a UH-Manoa archaeology team made a cursory map of a 1,000-square-meter lo`i complex in the ahupua`a of `Apua in 1972, “but there has been virtually no sustained effort to map Hamakua lo`i and the surrounding settlements in any detail,” Mills says.

“Given all of the historical modifications to coastal areas in Hamakua, our opportunities to look at how early native Hawaiian traditional agricultural communities were organized are rapidly disappearing. Oral history is great, but it’s amazing what else you can find out about these communities when you look to the source itself, especially when such efforts are done in a respectful way for the purpose of honoring the lives and accomplishments of the former residents of that beautiful place,” he says.

The answers to many of Mills’ questions about ancient Hawaiian activity in the area lay in the remains of daily activities — pollen, wood charcoal, stone tool chipping debris, etc. Lo`i sediments contain “a wealth of microscopic environmental information on former crops, rates of stream flow based on sediment grain sizes, and surrounding environments, as well as the remains of other daily activities (forest clearing by burning, chipping debris from making tools, etc.),” Mills says.

At Laupahoehoe Nui, Mills found lo`i deposits buried under an 1822 landslide that will reveal what was being grown at that time. There is very little knowledge of what, besides taro, was grown at Laupahoehoe Nui in the past, he says, and buried sediments hold the answer.

“As people in 2001 begin digging them up and slowly washing them out into the ocean, we will lose our chance to look for that stuff. Kalo is great stuff, but Native Hawaiian life was about a great deal more than taro,” he says.

Volcanic glass and adze stone found there may be an indication of trading between inhabitants of different ahupua`a, which Mills believes dispels the “oversimplified models” that each ahupua`a was independent and self-sufficient.

“Wouldn’t it be interesting to find that volcanic glass from Pu`uwa`awa`a on the Kona side was being traded across district and ahupua`a boundaries to be used in Laupahoehoe? The image of the isolated rural community there would quickly be put to rest,” Mills says.

Studying auwai can provide information on social boundaries within the ahupua`a, “like former kuleana boundaries (there are 4 kuleana within Laupahoehoe Nui from the 1840s), Mills says. “Documenting where former auwai are, and even where auwai may have been blocked up could give us a better understanding of how different family groups cultivated the terrace.”

Gaining insight to the past is one reason why surveys important before restoration. Preserving sites for future study is another.

“Once you begin modifying the landscape, and you don’t record what it looked like before you began modifying it, how will people in the future be able to tell what is truly ancient architecture, and what is the result of an effort in 2001 to recreate something that may or may not have been what was there to begin with?” Mills asks. “Once water starts flowing over the lo`i again, there is a greatly increased chance that erosion might actually damage certain walls and wash away deposits before everything gets running smoothly.”

Not So Easy

The restoration of Laupahoehoe Nui will be a large undertaking, but it already has a team of scientists, cultural practitioners, community members, and federal money supporting it. Not every place has such resources to study and preserve archaeology.

Both state and federal law provide some level of protection to historic sites. Where such sites are present, or are suspected to be present, permits need to be obtained before the sites can be altered or destroyed. And before the permits can be considered, archaeological surveys must be done. This can be a high hurdle for many small farmers or community groups.

About two years ago, biologist Adam Asquith entered the world of taro farming while working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at its Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge on Kaua`i. The refuge, home to several species of endangered water birds, is also the largest taro-growing area in the state. Since then, Asquith has himself become a taro farmer and has seen first-hand the effects that pressure to meet archaeological requirements have had.

In the past, Asquith has worked with farmers holding FWS permits to improve water quality, habitat, and open up new areas. Taro patches were seen to benefit water birds and were encouraged inside refuge boundaries. In the last two years, Asquith has worked with and knows of 10 new taro farmers in addition to 40 or so old-time taro farmers in the Hanalei area. Ten new farmers in two years is a “proportionally large number,” he says. “A lot of people are interested in taro farming because it’s a profitable second income. People can farm on weekends.”

Some people are trying to open up lo`i on their family’s kuleana, small tracts of land that were given to farmers at the time of the Mahele, or privatization of land in the mid-19th century. Others have leases on state, private, or federal land. “For many new farmers, it’s difficult to find suitable areas to farm since a lot of infrastructure has long been abandoned,” Asquith says. In addition, “the money and effort needed to restore 20 acres of hau bush is insurmountable. A cleared, level area, oh my, gosh, is like gold. It’s really, really difficult to restore infrastructure,” he says.

“Like the water commission, most people know about it but just ignore it.” — Adam Asquith, biologist
Adding to the burden are requirements for historic preservation review, which can cost a minimum of $10,000 to $15,000, Asquith says.

“Like the Water Commission, most people know about it but just ignore it,” he says, referring to the state agency that regulates diversions of stream water.

The archaeology requirements vary from island to island, he says, depending on how far the State Historic Preservation Division staff on each island want to stretch draft administrative rules. (SHPD does not have formal administrative rules; recently, the Board of Land and Natural Resources approved public hearings on draft rules, in preparation for years.) On Kaua`i, says Asquith, the division is “pretty successful in requiring full archaeological reports for restoration of lo`i.”

Many people try to comply with the rules by seeking to obtain the pro-bono services of qualified archaeologists, Asquith says. “But that’s not the point; professional people need to be paid,” he continues. “We need a procedure to fulfill that requirement.”

In the meantime, he accuses the SHPD of “data mining.” “That’s what they do with developers — force them to hire someone to get an area mapped,” he says. The problem is that the division is applying the same standards to families and kuleana.

“That’s not ethically right,” Asquith says. “You pay to play in Hawai`i for developers but not small farmers who are trying to revive” family lo`i.

The average taro farmer starting out does not have a lot of money or resources. As a result of being held to a developer’s requirements, many of those farmers have simply bulldozed their lo`i land to avoid the expense of doing archaeological surveys.

“And that’s the tragedy,” Asquith says. “If there were not financial hurdles, there would be no incentive to destroy the evidence. It happens a lot. On Kaua`i, because of the economics and land opening up, a lot of people are going back to the land. Where water is available, people are doing taro farming. They may not be Hawaiians and may not have cultural ties to a site,” he says. So if there are any financial hurdles, the archaeology may suffer.

“Most of these people are not just going back for culture and tradition. They’re doing it because they’ve got to have money.” It can take one to two years to clear the land and plant, then another year before harvest. “That’s a three-year output and effort before return. Any additional regulatory and financial obstacle” makes things tough, he says.

He offers Raymond and Cheryl Itamura as a “neat example” of that. The Itamuras tried to farm taro on Hule`ia National Wildlife Refuge. They had a lease with the FWS to use seven acres of the east Kaua`i refuge, only to have their lease suspended when, according to the FWS, the family cleared an irrigation path to feed their lo`i. This act was seen by the FWS as a violation of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. Asquith says the Itamuras are abandoning the Hule`ia refuge and are moving their farm to Koloa, where land-owner Grove Farm provides water diverted from Hule`ia Stream.

The existing regulations “maintain an imperialistic plantation management of our island’s economy,” Asquith says. “These people couldn’t pay for or work through the regulatory requirements to farm their kuleana. As good as the intent of regulations are, they’re actually holding back taro restoration.”

Doing it Right

Stacy Sproat of the Waipa Foundation, based in Waipa on Kaua`i’s North Shore, has been one of a group of taro farmers working on a set of practices that will help the small farmers study and preserve archaeology, independent of any legal requirements to do so.

If farmers can learn the skills needed to tackle the job themselves, Sproat says, everyone will benefit: the farmers, who can literally follow in the footsteps of their ancestors, the community, which will have more abundant and cheaper poi, and even state agencies and historians, who will have a more comprehensive catalog of historic sites.

In an effort to build support – and skills – for this approach, last summer, a group of high school and college students studying at Waipa learned not only taro cultivation, kapa making, and other Hawaiian skills, but also were taught principles of archaeological surveys and mapmaking by professional archaeologists volunteering their time. The eventual goal: restore taro cultivation to the back of Waipa Valley, whose lo`i have been ravaged by rice cultivation and cattle over the years.

In other sites, there’s no substitute for extensive, and expensive, archaeological work.

For example, when Chipper Wichman, director of the Limahuli Garden between Waipa and the end of the road at Ha`ena , wanted to restore the lo`i in the spectacular, isolated valley, he was told he would need a Conservation District Use Permit for the work. A condition of the permit was a thorough archaeological survey of the valley, which is now beautifully restored.

“In the 1980s, we applied for a CDUP,” he said, but, without the archaeological and other studies, the application was rejected. Wichman then obtained funds for the work and managed to get the state Board of Land and Natural Resources to set Limahuli apart as a special subzone of the Conservation District.

“It was time and money well spent,” he says now. Having to do a master plan for the entire ahupua`a of Limahuli “forced us to evaluate the project from every angle. It refined the process and tempered me against quick fixes.”

Although the process can be frustrating, he said, “you find ways to let off steam.”

Now Limahuli Garden, which Wichman and his wife, Hau`oli, have donated to the National Tropical Botanical Gardens, has a comprehensive master plan whose elements include not only archaeology and cultural resources, but also aquatic studies, enhancement of endangered species, and ecosystem and marine monitoring.

The next major project Wichman has undertaken lies just across the road from Limahuli Gardens. There, with the help of the Trust for Public Land, NTBG has purchased a lot rich in archaeological sites. “Our vision is to restore the archaeological complex,” Wichman says. “We had to get new permits all over again.”

This time, it is going to be a community effort, he says. “We’re going to train the Hawaiian community in archaeology. Lots of Hawaiians view this as a waste of time, but archaeology provides knowledge of the depth of knowledge of our kupuna.”

Three phases will be involved: hand-clearing the understory, doing the archaeological reconnaissance, and finally restoration of the area to cultivation.

“Lots of Hawaiians view this as a waste of time, but archaeology provides knowledge of the depth of knowledge of our kupuna.” – Chipper Wichman, National Tropical Botanical Gardens

“By the time you’ve reached the third step,” he says, “you’ve understood the site and its relationship to the ahupua`a. But the second step is tricky – and expensive.” Still, he adds, “I’m very much in favor of having the archaeology done with the help of professionals. Some archaeologists may be willing to do it pro bono.”

In the case of the recently purchased makai area, the archaeological work turned up some surprising results. “We found out that only a portion of the terraces were for wetland taro,” Wichman says. “Some were dryland. And we also found a 1,000-year-old imu,” or baking pit, whose age was determined through radio-carbon dating.

“Then we researched the mahele award,” he continues, referring to the privatization of lands that occurred in the middle of the 19th century. The documents “talked about wetland and dry lo`i. That made sense. We got a better picture of how the site was used.”

“It was unbelievable,” he says. “A light bulb went on for Hawaiians about the value of archaeology.”

Blueprints on the Land

According to Moloka`i taro farmer Kathryn Mahealani Davis, Onipa`a Na Hui Kalo – an association of taro farmers that is developing a set of best management practices, or BMPs, for lo`i restoration – sees lo`i terraces “as a blueprint on the land left in place by hydrological engineers. We encourage that their integrity be preserved, since they are the physical record of wisdom gained over centuries for that particular place.”

Wichman is a member of Onipa`a and has contributed greatly to the developing of these BMPs, Davis says. Some practices they plan to include are 1) hand-clearing of the area, 2) identification of all features in the landscape and mapping their layout, 3) asking a professional to walk the area with the farmer after preliminary clearing, 4) recording as much as possible before disrupting any soil, 5) changing none of the stonework.

“No single halau has all the knowledge. A combination of trained eyes and senses honed sharp by long experience seems best.” — Mahealani Davis, Moloka`i taro farmer
“It is in the place that was found to be best over many generations of seasonal extremes,” Davis says of the stonework. “Particular stone walls may only be necessary during a 100-year storm, but that is their purpose. Don’t second-guess the pragmatism of the elders. There was nothing done, especially not stonework, which would consume many calories, without purpose,” she says.

She adds that, according to Wichman, the SPHD is “very willing to help since rehabilitation and long-term stewardship will ultimately be in the hands of the planters on the land, and they provide much good counsel about how to manage the area in a manner consistent with preservation. For instance, if planters stay at least two feet away from stonewalls when they renew cultivation of the area, most of the archaeological record in the soil will remain intact for future study.”

“Our guidelines will encourage planters to do extensive research on the area, and seek out those with expertise to consult, both academic and those with life experiences. No single halau has all the knowledge. A combination of trained eyes and senses honed sharp by long experience seems best,” she says.

On this point, Peter Mills says, “As far as money, hiring professionals, and all that, one can learn the basic skills of making a tape and compass map like we made at Laupahoehoe Nui pretty quickly. I’d be happy to train anyone who is willing to take the time to learn. Collecting sediment samples and analyzing pollen does take more specialized skills and does cost money.” He adds that organizations such as the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the Edith Kanaka`ole Foundation, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture might offer grants to assist in lo`i restoration as well.

— Teresa Dawson

Volume 12, Number 5 November 2001

One Response

  1. Rosalind Rathbun

    I just stumbled across this article. It is funny to see something written about my dad (Chris Rathbun).

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