Traditional Hawai’ian Terraquaculture

For many visitors to Hawai’i the native people are almost invisible behind the caricature of plastic leis and aloha shirts. Yet Hawai’ian culture and identity is alive and well, observable most strongly in the resurgence of Pasifik voyaging and the powerful hula traditions. The traces of their sophisticated and complex ancient culture are apparent throughout the landscape, in the heiau (temples) that dominate many headlands and hilltops, in the traditional placenames that evoke their polynesian past and less obviously in the taro terraces now hidden by neglect.

It is fairly well known among the general population of Hawai’i that the traditional land division was based around the ahupua’a. Most guidebooks describe this as a long strip of land that stretches from the mountaintop to the sea, and comment that it gave the people of that ahupua’a access to all the resources they needed for self sufficiency. What these descriptions miss, and what becomes apparent when you look at a map of them, is that ahupua’a are based on water catchments. The ahupua’a was actually a system of integrated water catchment management.

I was told that traditionally a kind of committee of resource experts would decide collectively how best to manage the resources within the ahupua’a. Preservation of waterways was a paramount consideration and it was a principle that a person at the bottom of the catchment had a right to the same quantity and quality of water as one at the top. The lifeforces in the waterways were personified as mo’o, reptilian / humanoid guardians of water, and honoured.

The same no longer applies today. At Ka’ala Farm they showed me where traditionally 5 watercourses had snaked across the valley. Today only two run, intermittently. The streams had been diverted and exploited for the sugar cane plantations, and then for the town supply. As a result the water lens was badly depleted.

Visiting Ka’ala Farm ( a revelation for me. A community learning centre and a place of healing and celebration, the farm had revived a section of the taro terraces put there hundreds of years before by their ancestors. The valley held hundreds of acres of such terraces they told me, but they only had the labour power to maintain a small section of them. Nevertheless they were abundant with wet grown taro, fresh-water fish farms, dry taro, banana, kumara (in association with various tree crops), kukui (candlenut), koa wood and a host of other crops.

Traditionally the local Hawai’ians would also have farmed salt-water fish (the remains of traditional fish farms and stone-work fish traps are still found all over Hawai’i). They also fished from wa’a (waka), guided by the observations of sea, fish movements, weather and astronomy that their kahuna (tohunga) made from the heiau strategically placed on various headlands.

I was told that traditionally the Hawai’ians had planted tree crops on the ridges to catch mist and cloud and bring water down into the valley. Mountain apples and other fruits were strategically planted into specific microclimates on the slopes where they would thrive. The wetlands at the bottom of the valley (now drained) were traditionally protected as sources of abundance, and expanded via stone terracing up the slopes.

What was particularly interesting for me was that I had just attended a talk by Kama Burwell at the PiNZ hui at Tapu Te Ranga Marae where she had described very similar systems of terraquaculture practised by the Chinese, except growing rice in their terraces instead of taro. Both of these traditions show a very sophisticated understanding of holistic resource management, far beyond most modern farming practises. It definitely made me want to make a far more careful examination of traditional Maori resource management than I have so far.

The fact is that food security is a very significant issue in Hawai’i. Around 85% – 90% of their food is imported and food is expensive. It was a major highlight of my visit to Hawai’i to see these ancient systems of resource management, broken by the illegal annexation of Hawai’i by the USA, being brought back to life. Even better than the surfing and snorkelling was seeing the taro terraces and fish ponds in use and feeding the community.

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