Yes, kiawe is great for smoking meat. Yes, its flowers provide nectar for bees and the honey they produce. And yes, it often grows in otherwise barren areas, offering shelter from the blistering tropical sun.
To those points we have one simple retort: thorns. You haven’t walked on Hawaii’s beaches until you’ve been stabbed—through a thick slipper sole—by a needle-sharp, bone-hard spine that is also, conveniently, the color of sand.
Of course, puncture wounds aren’t the only strike against these ubiquitous shrubs. First introduced on Oahu in 1840 by a Peruvian Catholic missionary, Prosopis pallida spread quickly across the islands. Its large, shallow root system allows it to flourish in harsh environments—and chokes out existing plants. The same charge can be leveled against other invasive vegetation (eucalyptus, bush beardgrass, false kava) but again: thorns.
And get this: just like in the horror movie, where after the monster is vanquished it’s revealed there’s another, even scarier monster on the way, kiawe has an evil, super-sized cousin. Long-thorn kiawe—one of the top items on the Hawaii Invasive Species Council’s watch list—has already taken root on Kauai and Oahu, and a sighting on Molokai means Maui may well be next. As the name suggests, its thorns are more than twice as long as those of common kiawe. Translation: you’re gonna need a bigger slipper.
Almost every invasive animal has its defenders: cats, pigs, mongooses, even rats. But you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to make the case for mosquitoes. Ear-buzzing, blood-sucking, disease-spreading denizens of dusk, they’re also a (grudgingly) accepted part of Hawaii’s ecosystem.
But it wasn’t always so. Imagine a time when the islands were free of the biting Culicidae, when you could walk shirtless near a placid pond at sunset without being pocked by itchy red welts. That’s no fantasy—prior to the 19th century, Hawaii was mosquito-free. According to the state Department of Health, the first batch arrived in 1826, likely breeding in casks stowed in ships (though a persistent myth tells a more compelling, if less plausible story of a sailor who, jilted by a Hawaiian girl, intentionally unleashed the insects out of spite).
Different varieties of mosquitoes followed, bringing a Dengue epidemic in 1903—with some 30,000 confirmed cases—and an outbreak of yellow fever in 1911. Improvements in vector control have mitigated—though not eliminated—those risks, but mosquitoes remain among the state’s most irritating and embedded residents.
It’s a sad, safe bet that almost anything branded “Hawaii” wasn’t made in Hawaii. Most leis are grown and sewn in the Philippines. Cheesy tchotchkes come from China. Sure, that can be said of most things on the modern market. And yeah, we could outline every argument about the ecological atrocities and human-rights issues stemming from the methods of production and importation of all this crap. But here’s the bottom line: these touristy trinkets aren’t just sold as vacation memories manifest, they’re accepted as the embodiment of our host culture.
These cheap imports not only displace sales of local artisan-produced pieces, but contribute to the acceptance of a homogenized version of Hawaiiana. Is the Hawaii we know and love a land of plastic hula skirts and wads of keychains? Of course not. So why do we still wallow in wasteful, garish, pointless junk?
Cheaply made tikis are the worst offenders of all. The mounds of flimsy imports are effigies of effigies, mottled reflections of a skill once reserved for master craftsmen who created representations of the Polynesian progenitors of life. And visitors aren’t given much opportunity to make the distinction, aside from by the vast difference in price.
Which highlights the heart of the problem: cheap crap exists because we ourselves are cheap. We’ve diminished the value of making and keeping things so much so, the things that should represent us are not merely valueless, but no longer our own.
Tourism isn’t going away any time soon—nor should it. Our splendid surroundings deserve to be shown off, and spreading the Aloha spirit (cliched as that phrase has become) is a worthwhile endeavor. But after years of shortsighted bliss, the global recession has forced a long-overdue reevaluation of how we run our state’s bread-winning industry (and it’s important to remember it is our industry), with the popularity of eco-tourism helping to shape that view. Mega resorts no longer fit—if they ever did—the sustainable model.
If nothing else, huge hotels are a black hole for resources. It’s difficult to gauge exactly how much it takes to power these hospitality behemoths and impossible to isolate how much of the energy used is essential to operations and how much is being wasted. But we can assume it’s beyond a lot, and we know that our collective energy consumption is out of control. Though viable alternatives abound, a 2009 state legislative estimate puts the annual price tag of imported oil at $4-6 billion, with about 30 percent of that oil used to generate electricity.
Meanwhile, tourist hotspots are concentrated on our leeward coasts where it’s drier—and therefore consistently sunny—and are then transformed into fake oases with virtually limitless water, while residential areas suffer through drought conditions and cutbacks.
But what else happens when we relegate our centers of tourism to specific locales, herding our guests into isolated, insulated pockets? We solidify an “us versus them” mentality. Especially for those who work in the industry, there’s the understandable desire to escape—and that’s what allows the gap to perpetuate and widen. Maybe the reason we think tourists don’t understand us is because we’ve never given them the opportunity. Like faux-waiiana, we’ve created an impression of a fantasy land, which has therefore become what people accept—and what we accept of ourselves.
3. IMPORTED PRODUCE
Hawaii imports about 85 percent of its food, according to the Department of Agriculture, which equates to $3.1 billion leaving the state every year. “If we could replace just 10 percent of these imported foods, it would amount to $94 million at the farm-gate,” reads a 2008 report from the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR) at UH Manoa. “Taking into account the multiplier effects, this $94 million would generate an estimated economy-wide impact of $188 million in sales, $47 million in earnings, $6 million in state tax revenues, and more than 2,300 jobs.”
For an island state that boasts a climate conducive to year-round cultivation of nearly any crop imaginable, these figures are, like, b-a-n-a-n-a-s—especially when the produce we import includes, well, bananas.
Let’s run a little further with this banana thing—an icon of the tropics that even trumps the pineapple. Locally grown bananas are an $8 million business, and in 2008 were ranked ninth among the state’s top 20 agriculture commodities, with an estimated 17.4 million pounds of utilized production from 1,100 harvested acres. Still, this accounts for a mere fraction of our state’s consumption.
Until the late ’60s, Hawaii’s banana industry “supplied 100 percent of the local market,” according to a report by the Department of Tropical Plant & Soil Sciences at UH Manoa. A little more than a decade later, with the rise of cheap imports, that number had declined to 33 percent.
What do the figures look like today, for bananas or any other crop? “Unfortunately, this information is not readily available due to the difficulties in reconciling the various data sources on imports, food expenditures and local production,” says CTAHR. “Furthermore, it is an enormous, if not impossible, task to convert data consistently from the various sources to a common point in the supply chain.”
Yet the big numbers shout loud enough—and that’s just the bottom line. Add the evils of extreme fuel consumption, the threat (and reality) of introducing pests and disease, the use of genetic modification and chemicals to delay or accelerate ripening for transport, and worst-case scenarios related to our dependence and geographic isolation and it’s clear the system is rotten to the core.
The goal of 100 percent food self-sufficiency is probably unattainable in the near-term. But Hawaii is a great place to grow things. Take a trip to a local farm stand or farmers’ market and you’ll find produce that’s fresher, tastier and often cheaper than imported grocery store fare. It’s better for you, better for the economy and better for the planet.
The plantation—namely sugar—is the parent of every poi dog. The hundreds of thousands of immigrant laborers who came to Hawaii beginning in the 1800s are the reason for our muddled, colorful heritage. Though plantations were but a cog in the wheel of colonization, the residual “plantation mentality”—from the monopolization of an industry by a wealthy minority, who in the interest of domination segregated camps by ethnicity and created distinct racial hierarchies—is the crux of our lingering cultural divide.
Sure, the racism of yesteryear is fading. But as we struggle to move past it, we can’t discredit the effects of what social scientists call “transgenerational transmission of group traumas.” We may not have ghettos or reservations, but people are still hurt, though many are just far-removed enough to not really remember why.
There are ecological and economic pitfalls, too. Huge, mono-crop operations have begun to buckle under their own weight, and crop diversification is being trumpeted as the only viable solution. Still, sugarcane plantations take up some 20,000 acres statewide—nearly as much as all other principal crops combined.
As the sugar industry has waned, it’s become easy to reflect upon this piece of our history through the foggy lens of nostalgia. And plantations have sustained many generations of Hawaii families. But if we fail to honestly acknowledge and fully comprehend our past, we can never hope to master it—and move on.
This is where things get tricky. Tricky because “humans” is such a broad term—encompassing everyone from the first Polynesian explorers to yesterday’s crop of fresh-off-the-plane transplants—which naturally sparks debate about what groups are most to blame.
But beyond that—and trickier still—is the fact that it’s us. All of us. We’re the root of every problem on this list, so the only true “solution” is for us to disappear. Failing that—because, you know, we like it here—we have to find ways to mitigate our impact on this beautiful, fragile paradise. Not because of some far-fetched “ecotopian” fantasy, but for survival.
And we have to do it together—setting aside race, ancestry, creed and political affiliation. A recent Associated Press report described how, in certain cases, the Forest Service in Hawaii is giving up trying to eradicate invasive plants, and instead attempting to create “hybrid ecosystems,” where native and introduced flora can co-exist. “Invasive species are so prevalent,” said an ecologist quoted in the story. “You’re hand weeding, trying to eliminate them and aren’t able to keep up. It feels like you’re fighting a losing battle.”
The larger metaphor is easy to see: We can’t undo the past. But we can work to improve the present—and we can decide what we’ll introduce tomorrow.