By Léo Azambuja
Early Hawaiians significantly altered the environment over a span of at least 1,200 years, burning forests and building fishponds and extensive lo‘i systems. But they worked closely with nature to ensure a wealth of resources for a long-lasting, self-sustainable society.
As a result, before Capt. James Cook first arrived in Hawai‘i in 1778, there was enough food production to feed a population ranging anywhere from 400,000 to one million. Today, the islands’ population tops 1.4 million — and roughly 85 percent of our food is imported.
“I think a lot of people within the state (of Hawai‘i) recognize that the amount of food and fuel we’re importing isn’t sustainable,” said Kawika Winter, Ph.D., director of Limahuli Garden and Preserve. “So, as we look at more sustainable ways that we can live in these islands, instead of reinventing the wheel, we can look back to a system that worked for a long time.”
Some may say it’s a crazy idea, he said, but Limahuli Valley is one of the few places on Kaua‘i and one of a handful in the state where there are people trying to demonstrate how to manage resources and have abundance by looking back at ancient Hawaiian practices.
There are pockets all over the world where there is a “very deep wisdom” on how to live in harmony and in abundance, and not have this abundance come from depleting nature — and the Hawaiian culture is an example of that, Winter said.
The 1,000-acre Limahuli Valley lies within the Ha‘ena Ahupua‘a, deep into Kaua‘i’s North Shore. The valley is blessed with one of the few remaining pristine streams in Hawai‘i. From the top of the mountains at 3,330 feet, Limahuli Stream plunges 800 feet to form a stunning waterfall, and then runs throughout the valley on its way to the ocean.
Limahuli Garden and Preserve is part of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, and is the only botanical garden in the world that actively works with a near-shore fishery — the Ha‘ena Community Based Subsistence Fishing Area — according to Winter. And what opens the door to it, he said, is the ahupua‘a concept.
Winter, who holds three botany degrees from the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, said he is trying to figure out through his research how to apply traditional resource management from early Hawaiians into the 21st century. One of the challenges at Limahuli is that they don’t do just agricultural practices and near-shore fishery management.
“A lot of work in this valley is forest management,” said Winter, adding the answers to restore a healthy forest based on an ahupua‘a model aren’t so readily available — traditional forest management practices haven’t been well documented.
Part of what Limahuli Garden does, he said, is try to become a model of land management that works with communities and natural resources to produce abundant resources. If they can be successful with this model, they can demonstrate to others how they can use it in their own lives.
Tiana Kamen, educational coordinator at Limahuli, runs a program at the gardens and at the several lo‘i, or taro fields, that has the potential to create a lifelong bond between her students and nature.
“When you love something, you take care of it,” she said.
Several students from all grades work on the lo‘i, harvesting, weeding and fertilizing it the way early Hawaiians did. Kamen said she always start with an oli, or chant, when the students ask nature for permission to work the land. This grounds them and creates a bond from the beginning.
Regardless of what those students will do in life, she said, they’ll always carry that bond with them, which will allow them to make better decisions, as they grow up, regarding the environment.
Lahela Correa is the Visitor Program manager at the garden. Her family comes from the Ha‘ena ahupua‘a, where they fished and farmed. From the time she was in elementary school, she worked on the land. She said she didn’t understand the value of it until she became a mother.
“Now I have more respect for my culture, I have more respect for what my parents taught me,” she said.
Today, her family still farms and throws net to put food on the table. These days, however, the impacts of an increasing population have made it much more challenging to find fish, she said.
But she says there must be a balance, a point that Winter addresses. For an ahupua‘a system to work, it must have a model that includes people. If we really love this place, he said, we have to find a way to involve people, because we’ll never get rid of them.
“I like to believe there’s a way, and I believe the ahupua‘a system provides a model that allows for people and ecosystems to thrive,” Winter said.
After all, it has been tried and proven to work in old Hawai‘i, he said.
“We have this amazing system that had people, thriving communities in thriving ecosystems,” Winter said. “That’s what we call social ecological ecosystems, looking at the whole big thing as one system and not arbitrarily drawing lines between human communities and nature.”
Winter will present “Kaua‘i Past and Present: Traditional Resource Management Can Work for Contemporary Conservation” at Island School Feb. 19 at 6:30 p.m., an event sponsored by the Kaua‘i Historical Society. Island School is behind Kaua‘i Community College in Puhi.