I’d forgotten to ask for directions when I arranged to visit La’akea Permaculture Community so I had to stop for help in Pahoa. I stumbled upon The Locavore Store, which was full of great local fresh produce as well as sauces, balms, oils and things, and I swapped stories about food and politics with the friendly people tending the store. They offered me the use of their phone to ring the community.
Unfortunately I couldn’t understand a word the guy on the other end of the phone was saying. A lot of unfamiliar words plus some kind of American accent I’m not used to. I stopped asking him to repeat himself after the third attempt and decided to make do with the vague impressions I’d jotted down. Go past Pahoa then something about looking out for a couple of signs on the road. I half got the first one (Lelania Station?), no idea what the second one was. It was enough, anyway, to find the place after just one missed turn.
Tracy Matfin met us at the main house with a huge bowl of popcorn and a warm hug. An engaging and knowledgeable woman, Tracy explained to us how the community had come about and some of its ebbs and flows. It had started as the project of a wealthy individual who had purchased the land, had a permaculture design made for it and funded the first stages of its implementation. This had included trucking in large amounts of soil (since the land is basically broken lava for the most part), planting trees and establishing some infrastructure. The process had not left much time to “observe and interact” and some elements of the design had to be rearranged over time, such as the siting of water storage to allow it to be gravity fed to irrigated plots.
The land became available for sale at the right time to allow the original 7 community members to purchase it. That number has changed over time, with people coming, leaving and some people changing to living there seasonally. Now the community consists of 11 adults and 2 children, aged 6. The children have been attending a local Waldorf school but the intention is to develop some kind of home schooling.
The biggest focus for the community has been social permaculture. “It’s no good having a whole load of people who know how to plant trees if they argue all the time” says Tracy, emphasising the importance of Compassionate Communication (or Non Violent Communication) as part of the social toolkit. There is only one kitchen in the community so people learn to deal with things promptly instead of allowing them to fester. After all, you can’t hide away when you are having a problem with other people – sooner or later you have to emerge for dinner.
Despite having broken her leg roller skating, Tracy took us on a tour of part of the property. It was amazing to be in a tropical food forest and see papaya, huge lilikoi (passionfruit), cacao, coffee beans, vanilla beans, jackfruit, cardomom and a whole heap of tree crops (including greens) that I had never even heard of. There were also tropical sheep that looked like goats and some Australorp chickens. The high rain fall on the Puna side of the island meant the vegetation was thick and lush, although the same could be said for some of the invasives such as cane grass.
The property is financially self sustaining but the challenge now is for the members to be able to sustain themselves financially from the property as well. Most of what they eat is food they have grown but the community ebbs and flows around the question of how private they want to be – since the community is their home – compared to the income potential from running educational courses and events. This is a question that is regularly revisited as the membership changes.
From what Tracy said there is little coordination between permaculturalists in Hawai’i, to the extent that PDCs in different places can clash with each other, to everyone’s detriment. There is a desire to create some coordination and people to take this on may be starting to emerge. There is also an attempt being made on the mainland to create a US-wide permaculture organisation that will cover teacher accreditation among other things, but there is resistance among local teachers. The process is seen by some as being expensive, onerous and with no real value. Small and slow seems to be key here. The USA is such a big country that finding a way to organise without creating a distant, and bioregionally irrelevant, central bureaucracy will be a challenge.
Like in Aotearoa, an issue for the permaculture movement in Hawai’i is how it engages with the kanaka maoli, the indigenous people. There is a huge interest among native Hawai’ians in food sovereignty but access to land is the issue. Hawai’i is being sold to overseas developers at inflated prices while the indigenous people can rarely afford to buy land in their own ancestral islands.
Actually it didn’t make much sense to me for Hawai’i to be seen as part of a US based organisation. Hawai’i is a Pasifikan nation and while it may be under US occupation, it belongs firmly in the family of Oceanic islands. Creating stronger links between permaculturalists throughout the Pasifik Ocean seems a useful goal and already permaculturalist from Hawai’i have travelled in Aotearoa, while New Zealanders have come here – including time spent at La’akea by the ubiquitous and magnificent Robina McCurdy.
I was left with the thought that one day I would love to see a Pan-Pasifik Convergence. Visiting La’akea showed me that we have so much in common and so much that is unique to each island group. Sharing our stories and learning from each other can only be good for us all.