[NOTE: This story originally reported that the SHAKA movement itself was behind the Maui Community Organic Farmland Initiative. That is actually not the case, though three of the five citizens who created the measure and are pushing for its passage worked to push for SHAKA’s recent anti-GMO initiative. The five citizens who created the Farmland Initiative are Dr. Lorrin Pang (as a private citizen), Bruce Douglas, Bonnie Marsh ND, Aunty Puanani Mahoe and Chani Goering. Dr. Pang, Douglas and Bonnie Marsh ND worked on the anti-GMO bill. The following story has been corrected.]
In 1843, Samuel Thomas Alexander and Henry Perrine Baldwin, sons of pioneer missionaries, met in Lahaina, Maui. They grew up together, became close friends and went on to develop a sugar-growing partnership that spanned generations and left an indelible mark on Hawaii… What started off as partnership between two young men, with the purchase of 12 acres in Maui for $110, has grown into a corporation with $2.3 billion in assets, including over 88,000 acres of land…
It was the intelligent enterprise of missionary families, one telling of history goes, that led to the accumulation of wealth and land among Americans and Europeans in Hawaii from the 1800s onward. The foreigners’ business acumen was so great that it culminated into a concentration of ownership that earned a group of companies (Castle & Cooke, Alexander & Baldwin, C. Brewer & Co., American Factors and Theo H. Davies & Co) the title, the Big Five. “They controlled land, water, and forest resources, and had a virtual lock on labor relations and public policy, creating a totalizing effect,” writes Carol MacLennan in Sovereign Sugar.
The findings section of A Bill to Establish a Program to Acquire and Lease Agricultural Lands, proposed in the Maui Community Organic Farmland Initiative, claims another history with the use of a word not found in the Alexander and Baldwin myth: mahele. The controversial Mahele of 1848, which transformed the Hawaiian land system from one of communal tenure to private ownership, led to a concentration of land in 1890 where of the population of 90,000, just 5,000 owned land, Section 1 of the proposed bill states. Among this elite landowning minority, the findings maintain, Americans and Europeans were the majority and controlled over one million acres or approximately 56 percent of all privately held land.
Agribusiness in Hawaii thrived, increasing the power of landholding sugar planters who, “with the assistance of the U.S. minister to Hawaii and the U.S. military, overthrew the lawful Kingdom of Hawaii, which it replaced with a provisional government composed of landowning sugar planters and their allies,” the bill findings claim. In the plantation-centered economy (plantation agriculture, MacLennan notes in Sovereign Sugar, “has a long history as a colonizing force to subdue and exploit tropical ecologies and peoples”) that followed throughout the Territorial era, the amount of land planted in sugarcane doubled as concentrations of landownership increased. An influx of immigrant plantation laborers continued alongside the displacement of Native Hawaiian Land uses.
Western histories of the 1848 Mahele have always defined the term mahele as “divide”… however, mahele has another connotation in Hawaiian that is very different from the idea of “divide” in English. Mahele also means “to share,” as one does food or wealth, while the term “divide” in English means “to separate, sever or alienate.” Did the Ali‘i intend to deny their people unrestricted access to all source of food? I think not… In capitalist theory, private ownership of the ‘Aina offered each individual great opportunities for private wealth, if one understood the rules of capitalist society. But capitalist rules were not easily understood by or logical to Hawaiians…
-Lilikala Kame‘eleihiwa, Native Land and Foreign Desires
The impact of centralized landholding continues today, with the focus of corporations now on the more profitable venture of land development rather than agriculture. A&B remains the largest private landowner on the island of Maui, the bill maintains, and engages in “‘land management’ practices that are not developed for the public good, nor for the long term health, stability and food-security of the community.” Thus, the bill would exercise the County’s power to use eminent domain to change “present patterns of such landownership in Maui County by allowing the County to buy or condemn agricultural land at the request of residents or potential farmers [to] satisfy the pressing public necessity for a secure, strong and stable agricultural sector and overall economy.”
The colonial history of land concentration exposed in the findings section is an essential piece of the proposed bill. “Findings is the basis of the bill,” SHAKA Movement co-founder and organizer for the Maui Community Organic Farmland Initiative Bruce Douglas told me. “The de-concentration of concentrated lands is an accepted use of eminent domain. It’s been upheld in federal courts and upheld in state courts as an appropriate use.”
Critics of the petition, like Ann Emmsley–a University of Hawaii Maui College Professor of agriculture and natural resources–are concerned about increasing the use of eminent domain. The law would apply to properties over 1,000 acres that are zoned interim, agricultural, rural, conservation or open space and are currently used or have historically been used for agriculture. This includes land other than the closing A&B HC&S sugar fields.
“There are a lot of large landowners” that fall over 1,000 acres, she said, listing Kamehameha Schools and “maybe other Hawaiian landowners, Oprah, Ulupalakua Ranch, Hana Ranch [and] Haleakala Ranch.
“I have no problem with the county or the Hawaiian Islands Land Trust negotiating for ag parks,” Emmsley told me, but to her the bill would cast a wide net that could catch many unintended fish.
Douglas has enough faith in the bill language and the community of Maui to dismiss this concern. “No one’s going to get somebody’s ranch and take it away for the wrong reason,” he said. “It’s not the spirit of the law of what people are going to stand behind. The law very explicitly excludes kuleana lands, land held by the crown, Hawaiian homelands and lands–of course–held by the federal government.”
There are several steps in the proposed bill’s “Diversified Agricultural Land Acquisition and Leasing Program.” The bill creates a Community Farmlands Committee of nine members with various levels of experience in diverse fields such as organic or regenerative farming, large scale agriculture, Hawaiian Studies and culture, agricultural products and conservation science. The committee is appointed by the Mayor and confirmed by the County Council, according to the 2015 Revised County Charter (a fact that elicited groans in an April Kihei town hall meeting held by the Community Farmland Initiative, showing an underlying discontentment with officials that explains in part why a District Voting Charter Amendment Proposal has piggybacked onto the initiative).
Under the proposed law, the County may acquire applicable agriculture lands two ways: First, after a petition of resident Maui farmers, holding no ownership of agricultural land, provide documentation demonstrating that they will be able to pay the county for the lease of the land and submit a viable farm plan. Or after a petition of signatures of registered voters in a number no less than 10 percent of the number of votes cast in the last regular second special election held in conjunction with the general election requests the condemnation of certain agricultural lands.
Following this, the Community Farmlands Committee must hold a public hearing and evaluate the petitioner’s eligibility and whether the proposal meets the bill’s goals, and may grant the entirety or portion of the land identified in the petition accordingly. The committee, with the assistance of the Director of Finance, would then negotiate for acquisition over a period no longer than six months.
“There’s actually very few landowners that have 1,000 acres in Maui County,” Douglas told me, indicating that the primary target of efforts under a potential community farmland law would be A&B land. Indeed, out of the 1,128 total farms in Maui County counted in the 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture, 29 farms have holdings of 1,000+ acres.
The average farm size in Maui County is 203 acres while the median size is a mere five acres, an indication of unequal property size distribution and vast farmland concentrated among few. The census, however, only includes lands currently used for agriculture, not historical agricultural land. Douglas hopes that the land’s history will be fleshed out in the bill’s proceedings.
“A concern people have is that apparently big areas of that land were leased to A&B on 99 year leases that have expired and they are still occupying that,” he said. “The families claim they have claim to that, but they’re not powerful enough to go up against A&B and stake their claim. They’ll tie them up in court and spend money they don’t have. What this will do is flush out those claims because you can’t use eminent domain on something that’s not owned; first you got to prove rightful ownership. The question of rightful ownership will come to the forefront… We’re all working together in order to flush that out; in order to get the power of the people against this corporation that has unfairly dominated our entire farmland.”
This has earned Bruce Douglas and the Farmland Initiative the support of Hawaiian community leaders like Ke‘eaumoku Kapu.
”I will support the effort,” Kapu announced at a recent Lahaina town hall organized by the Farmland Initiative. “I will go out there and talk to my people to sign that petition–because that will give us a greater opportunity to answer the true question out there. If the county does initiate some way of grabbing these lands for the benefit of the general community then hopefully some of those issues and concerns that have been pressed upon native Hawaiians for 127 years, 130 years, should come to the forefront. If it does come to the forefront I am hoping that all of you people who sign the petition really take grasp of the reality of who and the conditions that we live in–that our whole political system today from the state, from the senate, from the county is crooked. It’s time for the people to get back what is rightfully theirs.”
The way to do that, initiative backers believe, is through eminent domain.
“Eminent domain has been abused in the past because governments have taken land from small land holders and turned them over to developers,” Douglas said. “This [bill] is the opposite. This is the highest use of eminent domain. It’s actually the other way around, where we’re breaking up a corporation that’s unfairly concentrated the land and giving it back into the people’s hands where it belongs. So it’s not strengthening eminent domain, it’s using it for its highest and best purpose… This is the whole people coming together, saying, no, we want to use it as a people.”
Since announcing their transfer out of the sugar industry, Alexander & Baldwin has announced a “new diversified model” that would divide the plantation “up into smaller farms with varied agricultural uses, potentially including energy crops, food crops, support for the local cattle industry, and the development of an agriculture park.” Douglas and other critics of A&B doubt the corporation’s ability to bring about land use changes that they believe are in the best interest of the people (A&B did not respond to a request for comment for this story).
The nonprofit activist organization Maui Tomorrow has exhibits titled Alexander and Baldwin’s Proposed Central Maui Developments which use East Maui Stream Water and Comparison Map of Current (2010) HC&S Ag Lands and Lands Committed to Future Lands as IAL (important agricultural lands). These exhibits show that A&B is planning residential and baseyard expansions along with a North Kihei “mixed use” development of 1,700 proposed lots on 260 acres. No farms or ag parks are named.
The proposed bill determines that leasing land “exclusively for farming that feeds Maui and the Hawaiian Islands on as many small, diverse farms as possible using organic and regenerative agricultural practices” is in the best interest of the people and sets this as its ultimate goal. Priority would be given to applicants whose proposals demonstrate a long-term public benefit, facilitate cooperation with other farmers, avoid negative impacts to other farmers, encourage long term sustainability, utilize regenerative agriculture, contribute to food security in Hawaii, create living wage employment for the citizens of Maui and reduce off-site harm and increase off-site benefits to the environment.
Emmsley sees a problem with non-farmers creating restrictive rules dictating how farms should operate. Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa holds a similar stance and “does not support condemning land, nor does he support excluding a majority of Maui’s small farmers from leasing said land,” said county Communications Director Rod Antone. “If you read the initiative, you’ll see that they would only allow organic farmers to work the land and no one else.”
A farmer who grows both organic and non-organic plants, Emmsley supports organic and diversified agriculture, but feels that “organic is not the only way” to farm sustainably. Indeed, in a 2014 Forbes article, Henry I. Miller, molecular biologist and founding director of the FDA’s office of biotechnology, characterizes the development and application of non-organic techniques as the maximization of “human ingenuity and the quest for progress–that is, for processes and products that are more efficient, less costly, and at the same time, less harmful to the environment.”
But Douglas disagrees.
“In the long term [organic farming is] the only thing that works,” Douglas said. “The old system of killing the soil, killing the microbes, with synthetic fertilizers and chemicals is a dead end street. There isn’t a choice anymore to continue down the chemical agriculture pathway.”
Activists cite environmental imperatives for their purist stance, such as reducing air pollution and pesticide drift, restoring and detoxifying groundwater, sequestering carbon in soil, decreasing our 90 percent dependence on food and energy imports and reducing water use. Further evidence cited in Town Halls for the Initiative is a UH Manoa study that showed tumors in the Honu (green sea turtle) are linked to excessive nitrogen in the ocean from agricultural fertilizers.
Then there are findings of a recent Maui Tomorrow report conducted by Permaculture Design International LLC titled Malama ‘Aina: A Conversation About Maui’s Farming Future (available online at Futureofmaui.org). Albert Perez, the director of Maui Tomorrow, said that the organization does not presently support or oppose the proposed bill due to their open exploration of how land can be used towards a “win-win-win situation for all concerned” interests. But he did speak at a recent Kihei Community Farmland Initiative town hall to explain the report.
The Malama ‘Aina report focuses on the “abundant, resilient” methods of regenerative agriculture (a refined kind of organic agriculture founded on the principle of systematically increasing soil health). Like Maui Tomorrow’s report, the initiative-backers’ claim that not only is regenerative agriculture a feasible solution, it’s a way forward that can be more profitable, create more skilled jobs, use significantly less water, cause less erosion and pollution, contribute to a more diverse economy and develop a more food secure and sustainable island when compared to HC&S and similar industrial, conventional monocrop methods.
“Will it take a lot of intelligence and a lot of will of the people to do that?” Douglas asked rhetorically, regarding the potential large scale transition to regenerative agriculture farms. “Yes, it will. But in two to five years you can have life back in that soil again and be able to grow it. In 10 years it can be in full vibrancy again.” Another parallel between the Malama ‘Aina report’s findings and Bruce’s vision for Maui farming is the hope for more cooperative models of farming that provides opportunities for shared knowledge, training and education.
In principle, this hope values food security, mutual good and ecology before profit, believing that with the former in place economics and long term sustainability will follow. The competitive model, on the other hand, significantly places the odds of success in favor of large corporations with investment power. “The cooperative model is the only model that’s sustainable,” Douglas told me. “[The cooperative model] is a way that small farmers band together in order to share and work together in harmony to help grow and get into market and share implements and costs and knowledge.”
On Apr. 18, the first deadline for Community Farmland Initiative petitioners to submit 9,202 signatures to continue the process of turning a petition to law, this cooperative spirit was in display.
“Who loves data entry? Who loves to count?” Satya Douglas, a key organizer for the initiative, called to the gathered supporters from under a blue canopy pitched to the side of the County building, as last minute petitioners notarized and submitted their papers for tally. Volunteers busily facilitated a continual march of incoming supporters as someone beat a tambourine and County workers passed by bewildered at the Earth Day scene which had beset High Street.
Then, at 3:42pm, less than an hour before the deadline, Bruce Douglas and a small group of volunteers erupted, raising their joined hands and jumping for joy, exclaiming “We reached 10,000!” The air changed. That morning, a Farmland Initiative email called for volunteers to work to collect and submit 1,000 needed signatures, but now any anxiety was released. Hugs were exchanged all around.
“The true heroes are all the petitioners,” Bruce Douglas said, “who went out without any fame or glory or notoriety or credits to gather all those signatures. We got 500 petitioners who’ve taken packets. Those are the real heroes.”
The County Clerk’s office stayed open after 7pm that night, timestamping 1,069 pages of petitions and the accompanying paperwork for over 11,000 submitted signatures. Over the next 45 days, the office will review every signature’s validity in a process that, in Douglas’ experience, removes about half of the signatures. But Maui Community Organic Farmland Initiative petitioners say they’ll continue to collect signatures to replenish the likely count loss due to invalidity.
If the petition has 9,202 or more valid signatures within 20 days after being notified of any insufficiency, the proposed bill will go to the County Council, which could enact it or place it on the ballot this November.
Cover design: Darris Hurst
Photo: Forest & Kim Starr/Wikimedia Commons