Tiare Lawrence strolled into MauiTime’s offices last Friday precisely on time for a noon interview. Wearing cut-off jeans, a red plaid shirt, and long hair wound into a loose bun, she had agreed to meet with editor Axel Beers and me to discuss her new job. The Lahaina born-and-raised waterwoman and hula dancer is now a Pukalani-based mother of a girl, 9, and a boy, 7. While working as a small business owner and clothing designer, Lawrence became politically activated by the fight over the Olowalu Town Project. She quickly garnered a reputation as a charismatic and effective political warrior. At 36, Lawrence is the veteran of two unsuccessful campaigns for a seat in the Hawai‘i State Legislature. After her close defeat last fall, she said she was mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted. Still, she decided that loss meant that “Akua had bigger plans for me.” Apparently, it did – Lawrence has taken a job with Mahi Pono, the Maui collaboration between a California farming investment group and a Canadian pension fund and the new owner of 56,000 acres of Central Valley land and East Maui watershed. Energized and eager to explain her new job, she spoke candidly with us about her goals and challenges.
Deborah Rybak: Tell us about your new job.
Tiare Lawrence: Mahi Pono reached out to me for help with community relations, to help connect them to community stakeholders. They felt that I’d be a great fit because I’m well-connected and worked very closely with a lot of them. I see it as a great opportunity to make sure that these voices have a seat at the table and for Mahi Pono to learn intimately what the issues are. I’m happy that I can be that vehicle and look forward to seeing where it takes me.
DR: Who do you mean by “stakeholders?”
TL: People who are affected by water, especially on the East Side, and people within our Hawaiian community; people who have been adversely affected over the years by farming practices. But, at the end of the day, Mahi Pono affects everyone on Maui. The future of ag and the future of Central Maui’s plains is now in their hands. I felt this was a great opportunity to work closely with them, to try to partner with them, educate them, and hope that we can, together, move forward in a pono way. I’m still getting to know them, but, so far, they’ve been very open to a lot of the ideas and concerns that I’ve shared with them, and that’s better than what we’ve had the last 150 years.
DR: When I initially spoke to Shan Tsutsui [MP senior vice president of operations], he said he wanted your help with legislative issues.
TL: I’m very selective on the type of legislative work that I’m going to be doing for them. Specifically, I’ll help with passing hemp – I’m really passionate about that. Then I’m still working part-time with the Hawai‘i Alliance for Progressive Action [HAPA], where I’m focused on housing, sea level rise, and managed retreat policy.
DR: Right after the sale, I asked why you so quickly supported Mahi Pono. You said, “Because I trust Shan.” Where does that trust come from?
TL: Well, I followed Shan’s work for many years. What I liked most was the Farm to School Initiative that he started – that’s a big deal to me: local food security, especially feeding our kids good locally-sourced food. Shan is very well-connected and well-respected, and Mahi Pono is going to need somebody who can communicate to both spectrums of our community. In Maui we’re very divided right now, and I’m hoping that, over time, we can lomi lomi that and move forward in a more balanced direction.
I feel Shan’s ‘ano, his energy. He really wants to find balance. When he reached out to me for help, he said, “Tiare, in 20 years, I want us to be able to fly over Maui and know that we had a hand at saving these lands from development.” That sold me. That’s what I’ve been all about – protecting these ag lands.
DC: And you feel strongly that Mahi Pono is best able to do that?
TL: The reality is – and I want people to understand this – if Mahi Pono fails, it could be very detrimental to Maui’s future. The chances of these lands being developed are very likely. So I feel that the best thing for us to do is to partner with them as much as possible. Let’s make sure that they engage the community in their planning process, especially with their strategic ag plan. I’m hoping to be able to help guide them in the right direction so that everybody benefits in the long run.
DR: There was a stretch of time between the job offer, and your acceptance. Why the delay?
TL: I wanted to get to know Mahi Pono better. I wanted to make sure that my family and my people within my community supported me in this venture. And I’m – just like a lot of people in the community – skeptical, but I’m very optimistic at the same time because I see this as opportunity. Like I said earlier, I don’t expect them to do everything that I request, but if they can apply 15, 20 – hey, upwards of 50 percent of the things that matter to me most, then I’ll take it. Look, sugar failed and monocropping is horrible for the environment, and there are a lot of issues that need to be addressed. And so far – in the capacity that I’m in – they’ve been listening, and they’re making commitments to really do good by the community. And I always tell people to judge people by their actions.
DR: After years of fighting on behalf of your community, you’re suddenly working for the establishment. How does that feel?
TL: Well, look at it this way. I ran for public office for two elections. I was willing to sacrifice myself, away from my family, to be at the Capitol to fight for my community. I’m willing to work for a company and have a voice on the inside to fight for my community. That’s the way I look at it. At the same time, I have children. Working for a nonprofit, I’m not going to be able to do the things that I want to do with my kids off of that type of income. That’s my reality. I love working for a nonprofit, but I saw this as an opportunity.
Most importantly, I want Mahi Pono to be community-engaged, people-driven, and ‘aina-based. That was my motto during my election and so that’s what I bring to the table.
DR: You’re not skeptical?
TL: Until action is done, I’m always going to have a sense of skepticism, because I always judge people by their actions, and so I want people to give these guys a chance to do good. But look, I am tired of fighting against people within our community, because our kids go to the same school or the kids play at the same sports and we go up to meetings and there’s tension in the room. I don’t want to live my life like that anymore. I don’t want my kids to live like that. I’m tired of the divisiveness in our community. And so this is an opportunity for us to mend bridges and move forward, grow some food, at the same time make sure our kalo farmers are taken care of, and why not? Why not eat meat that is locally grown here? Why not eat food that’s grown here? And so I choose to partner with them; I choose to educate them and see where it takes me.
Axel Beers: So are you going to be working with Mahi Pono on the water legislation?
TL: I’m letting Shan deal with that.
AB: You were so invested in water issues in the past…
TL: Yeah, and I’m working on so many other things right now. I’m the director for Ka Malu O Kahalawai. It’s a nonprofit, and we’ve been in charge of doing the mauka to makai restoration in Kahoma Valley. I actually was at a Commission on Water Resource Management meeting last night, and we had our instream flow standards meetings, and now we’re filing petitions for groundwater management for the West Side. So I’m still very much involved in water.
DR: OK. So today [Feb. 8] they had a hearing on HB1326 – a bill about revocable water permits that is supported by Mahi Pono. It’s not supported by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the Hawaiian Alliance for Progressive Action, or the Sierra Club. Where do you stand?
TL: I don’t support the language in this bill as written, but it’s a very complex situation. You’re not going to invest millions of dollars without the right to access those lands and the water. You can’t do soil remediation. The community keeps saying they want cover cropping, they want this, they want that. Well, you need water for that. We’ll see where these bills take us. But I do know that within our environmental organization they’re very organized, they’re very passionate, they’re very committed, and I trust that the legislature will do the right thing.
DR: You now work for both HAPA and Mahi Pono, and they are completely at odds over this legislation. How do you avoid a nervous breakdown?
TL: Yeah, that’s funny, nervous breakdown. I’m in a very challenging situation. However, I do believe that there’s more than enough water to share. I can only share my mana‘o and see where it takes me. I think as these bills progress, I trust that the language will be watered down as they find compromise. We’ll see.
AB: If HB1326 is the bill that Mahi Pono is pushing, as their community relations person, what are you telling them about how they could make it pono?
TL: Well, first of all, we’ve got to complete that EIS [Environmental Impact Statement], right? You can’t apply for a long-term lease without an EIS, and so they’re committing to completing that EIS. That costs upwards of $2 million, and so they’re doing it. That is expected to take maybe up to two years.
But going back to the bill, I can only do so much from the inside, right? Like I said earlier, I can’t expect them to do everything that I want, but if I can influence them even just 20 percent, then that’s a lot better than what we’ve had.
AB: Will Mahi Pono address Hawaiian land title – all the disputes that people have been having with A&B and the land?
TL: Yes, they are learning, let me tell you. You know, that historical trauma runs deep.
TL: I’m going to focus on moving forward. I want us to move forward. I want to be able to work closely with the HC&S employees – well, now Mahi Pono employees – on having more collaboration. And agree to disagree.
AB: Can you talk about any of Mahi Pono’s upcoming commitments?
TL: I’d be happy to share a few. We are creating an ag advisory board with Native Hawaiian farmers, representatives from the Hawai‘i Farmers Union, Hawaii Farm Bureau, and then a few others who have strong farming backgrounds. Mahi Pono didn’t have to create an ag board, but they’re taking some of the ideas that we’ve given them and realized that it’s a good way to move forward. And so this ag advisory board will help with the first thing that Mahi Pono is going to focus on: the community farm plan. They’ll help us figure out what that looks like, where the lands will be located, and what some of the rules are going to be. I’m putting that together.
I’m excited because we’ve never had that before. And then to have a Native Hawaiian voice on this ag advisory board, that’s progress.
AB: Anything else you’d like to share?
TL: We are working on an ‘ulu project across from Ho‘okipa. And so the goal is to adopt more civil pastoral practices, and I just got the green light this week to plant 100 ‘ulu trees in Hamakuapoko, in the ranchland. We’ll shade the cows, and they love to eat ‘ulu. And it restores the cultural landscape of Hamakuapoko, so I’m excited about that.
We want to do some cover cropping to help with soil remediation. The good thing about the [sugarcane] closure over the past two years is the soil has actually improved a lot, and there are soil samples out there that can prove it. But ultimately that needs water, manpower. They’re still building up their local team. They’re going to start putting out applications soon to build up their workforce.
DR: What kind of timetable do you see?
TL: Well, It hasn’t even been two months. You know, the plantation was here for 150 years. As Shan says,”‘Can we give these guys 150 days to kind of work out the kinks and figure things out?” I want to give these guys a little bit of time before they start anything, because that community outreach component is very important.
DR: You want to give them information before they launch anything?
TL: Absolutely, and that’s why I think being in my new position is beneficial. I want the community to know Tiare Lawrence isn’t going anywhere. I’m still Tiare; I’m still going to be that voice. I’m still going to stand up for my mauna, I’m still going to stand up for mauka to makai connectivity, I’m still going to stand up against GMOs and all of that. I’m still me; I’m just not at the Capitol. I’m now working for the company that has Maui’s future in the palm of their hands, and so if I can help guide them in the right direction and eventually help them live up to their name, then I’m all for it. And if things go south and don’t really go the way I would hope, then I will be the first person to leave, but I’m willing to put myself out there and sacrifice myself because I care about Maui and I care about Maui’s future. This is about my kids’ future. This is about future generations. The decisions that happen today affect seven generations from now, so if we can grow more food and grow more renewable energy, and do it in a respectful way by managing our resources properly, then it’s a hell of a lot better than what we’ve had the past 150 years.
Photo by Bailey Rebecca Roberts