Tag Archives: Hawai’i

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 (www.kaala.org)was 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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Poem for Pele

We prepared ourselves to meet her

at the cliffs of Vahine Kapu

We stripped naked underneath the moon

to cleanse ourselves in her steam

Her breath was hot and humid

the wind whipped it around us

saturating us with her mist

as we stood before her red cave


In the sometimes icy cold

mostly warm and heavy

or intense and searing pain

We sweated and silently prayed

Tourist cars passed in the dark

none of them the wiser

This place of power, potent still

perpetually restored


We stood upon her mountaintop

and gazed upon her threshold

The endless sky glowed and fizzed

with stars familiar and unknown

Beyond our sight her presence felt

Terrible and Dreadful

A temple built without hands

One of the great sacred places of the world


Then we approached her

hair standing and skin trembling

Her radiance lit the sky

Plumes billowed in the air

Her sound disconcerting

the language of rock, fire and lava

The akua is home

who would dare to go near?


Pele, the lady of the volcano

Majestic, powerful, beautiful, fearsome

Purifying the land

even as she creates it anew


9 June 2014

Kawaihae, Hawai’i Island

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Visiting La’akea Permaculture Community, Hawai’i Island

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.



A tree green for the pot Tree greens[/caption]
P1070301 Cardomon [/caption]
P1070303 Cacao [/caption]
P1070307 Vanilla [/caption]
Tracy Matfin Tracy Matfin [/caption]

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.

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