Editor’s note: This post has been updated since its original posting for clarity and to include comments from Sean Lester and Tiare Lawrence.
[MauiTime first broke the story of the sale of Alexander & Baldwin’s old sugarcane lands in November 2018. Our ongoing Changing Maui: Mahi Pono series investigates the new owners of these massive land holdings and the changes they will bring to Maui. It is part of Changing Maui, a larger series on the changes facing Maui County.]
Well, the Mahi Pono charm offensive is over. Just five weeks after buying 56,000 acres of Maui farmland and watershed for $262 million, the California-controlled, Canadian pension fund-bankrolled corporation apparently is through with its cursory “listening” tour. An email from social activist-turned-Mahi Pono consultant Sean Lester recently made the rounds in Maui agricultural and environmental circles, and – to put it mildly – eyebrows were raised. Gone was the “We are stewards of the land” mask. Underneath? A slavering Lord of the Rings Gollum whose “Precious,” in this case, is water. Lots and lots of East Maui water.
First a bit of background. East Maui’s water has been the source of contention and legislation since the first water lease was granted by King David Kalakaua in 1876. Big growers like Claus Spreckels and Alexander & Baldwin demanded cheap water for Central Maui sugarcane and took it; East Maui farmers needed water for more traditional crops like kalo, as well as other cultural practices, and lost it. Over the years, constant sugarcane-related diversions emptied streams and ruined the ecosystem. In 2018, a 17-year water diversion battle ended when the state water commission ordered the full restoration of water flow to ten East Maui streams, plus limited or no diversions from another seven streams so that habitat could be restored.
It was a big victory for kalo farmers, fishermen, hunters, and cultural practitioners — at least on paper. Restoring the streams has been slow going. A&B dragged its corporate feet implementing the state-mandated changes, but still wanted its water permits renewed – even after it stopped growing sugarcane. Arguments continue over the way the state has continued to grant “revocable” one-year water permits to A&B, even though the company hasn’t fully complied with the requirements for getting those permits. And the three-year limit on the revocable one-year permits expires this year.
In short: It’s an unholy mess.
Enter Mahi Pono (meaning “to grow or cultivate properly”) which began wooing lawmakers on the first day of the 2019 session. The results of that effort were immediate. Bills were rapidly introduced by Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran (D-Central Maui) in the Senate (SB1116); and Upcountry Rep. Kyle Yamashita was among supporters of the House version, HB1326. The identical bills amend an existing water lease statute by basically sweeping away any time constraints or challenges that might slow the granting of “revocable water permits” to companies like, well, Mahi Pono.
To boost this water campaign, consultant Lester fired off a strident email demanding support, liberally employing caps and boldface: “ANYONE WHO WANTS A FARMING FUTURE AND FOOD SECURITY FOR MAUI NEEDS TO STRONGLY SUPPORT THIS BILL IN ANY WAY POSSIBLE NOW.”
In the email, Lester maintained that Mahi Pono’s success depends on “a long-term solid water source… what a blessing this will be for all of us.”
He wrote, “This is the set of bills Mahi Pono really needs help with. Without them, the farming venture is at grave risk, as is the future of farming here on Maui. And failure isn’t an option,” he added ominously.
Lester also took a shot at the Sierra Club (akin to kicking Grandma), saying that he heard the organization opposed the bills. “Why? Who knows…” He suggested the nonprofit’s stance could “cause great harm to Maui’s farming future.”
Lester’s email so irritated one Maui resident that he proffered a new nickname for the two-month old corporation: “Maybe Pono.”
Community activist Lucienne de Naie was quick to describe the bill’s intent. “It’s a blank check,” said de Naie, the conservation chair of Sierra Club’s Maui chapter. “A&B’s version was, ‘We need every drop of water we can get. We can’t possibly have anything interfere with these revocable permits.’ Mahi Pono is asking for the same thing.”
De Naie isn’t the only one troubled by Mahi Pono’s push for unfettered access to water. After seeing the bill, Rep. Lynn DeCoite drafted HB1573 (Sen. J. Kalani English sponsored the companion Senate Bill 1488) which is pretty much the polar opposite of the Mahi Pono initiative. DeCoite’s bill simply prohibits “any water use permit that authorizes the diversion of water from East Maui streams for commercial purposes.”
“I drafted the bill because constituents in my area have grave concerns about these water permits,” said DeCoite, whose District 13 covers East Maui, Lana‘i, and Moloka‘i. “They have been waiting for their water for a long time. If they have to wait for their water, then nobody gets permits first.” She added, “Look, if you live Upcountry and you want a water meter, you have to generate a farm plan. Where’s [Mahi Pono’s] farm plan showing what it’s going to grow and what its water needs will be? If it doesn’t have a farm plan, then get one.”
When contacted, Lester said he wasn’t bothered by the reaction to his email. “Whatever is going to be happening with the large purchase like this is going to upset some. I’m more than happy to meet with any groups that have questions.”
Update: On Wednesday, Lester wrote to me to clarify his Sierra Club remarks. After first explaining, “I won’t be writing anymore emails at 2am,” Lester went on to say this about Sierra Club: “They rock….They are allies and defenders of our islands and I am grateful for all that they do and for the people that serve on the SC boards.”
[Not to put too fine a point on it, but MauiTime has repeatedly asked Lester and his boss Shan Tsutsui for details on the kinds of crops Mahi Pono intends to plant, for an explanation on the seeming difference in the company’s stated Hawai‘i growing philosophy (food security) and parent company Pomona Farming’s California commodity crop activity (almond trees), for detailed maps of the land purchased, for interviews with company principals, and for details on when an open community meeting might be held. Still no answers.]
[Also, political junkies may be scratching their heads at the strange bedfellows these bills are making. Stalwart A&B supporter J. Kalani English supporting an anti-big agriculture bill? Fierce activist Tiare Lawrence boosting Mahi Pono, which supports legislation introduced by her former political opponent Kyle Yamashita? Oy.]
Update: The above sentence originally read “Mahi Pono booster and fierce activist Tiare Lawrence supporting the same legislation as her former political opponent Kyle Yamashita?” It’s since been clarified. In response to the previous version of this story, Lawrence wrote, “If you knew anything about me you would know that I do not support holdover permits.” When asked if she was therefore saying that she did not support the Mahi Pono-favored legislation introduced by her former political opponent, she repeatedly refused to answer and simply referred to her earlier statement.
We’re not alone in asking questions: DeCoite, one of the few farmers serving in the state legislature, said she’s perplexed by Mahi Pono. “There are a lot of gray areas that Mahi Pono needs to clarify,” she said. “They haven’t answered many questions. They keep saying, ‘Just trust us.’ And I say, ‘Trust no one.’ Not until you get all the facts.”
Newly elected South Maui Rep. Tina Wildberger also supports DeCoite’s bill. “It’s not my desire to subvert Mahi Pono’s efforts,” she said in an interview. “But I also don’t want to greenlight the A&B-style ‘take everything and leave nothing.’ I promised my community that I would not be an automatic ‘yes’ person to the establishment and the old ways of doing business.”
However, resolving these diametrically-opposed bills will probably involve an age-old method of doing political business: the backroom deal. Those familiar with the situation say Mahi Pono wants to know what it’s going to take to keep the opposition at bay. Such a negotiation will most likely require a lot more transparency on Mahi Pono’s part in outlining exactly what the corporation has planned for Maui – and its water.
Image 1 courtesy Sean Lester