In addition to having a clever name, Sust ‘aina ble Molokai is a grassroots organization that advocates sustainability with a modern twist, while honoring cultural traditions. Partnering with the Alu Like Ho`ala Hou—a substance abuse prevention program that helps at-risk youth through therapeutic farming—and the national Permaculture Research Institute, Sust ‘aina ble Molokai recently concluded a four-course, three-month series of intensive, hands-on permaculture workshops. Under the tutelage of internationally known experts Geoff Lawton and his wife Nadine, Andrew Jones, Shenaqua Sookhoo-Jones and Hunter Heaivilin, local students did permacutlure work on the Ho`ala Hou’s 20-acre site in Mahana.
We caught up with Sust ‘aina ble Molokai’s president, Malia Akutagawa, to learn more about their Molokai Permaculture Initiative and what they hope to accomplish.
Tell us about the roots of Sust ‘aina ble Molokai.
Sustainability is about looking at our relationship with the Earth. “Aina,” roughly translated, means land—but it really is about the reciprocal relationship between the people and the land, and our kuleana to malama our ‘aina. For us, Sust ‘aina ble Molokai is about our responsibility to care for the Earth, and essentially began when Molokai Ranch laid off all it’s workers. To me, it was like the community was being pitted against itself, and I was really concerned about the way things were becoming ugly around points of controversy. A community or family pitted against itself will always lose, and I wanted people to see that if we continued to operate in that way, it’d always be a zero-sum. There’s a lot of healing our community needs to do, and we’re continuing on that path.
Molokai is in the piko of the island chain—and we really speak from our gut—and Molokai’s reputation from ancient times was as ‘aina momona, meaning the fat or abundant land. We have a history as an island of staving off resort development, and a lot of the birthing of the Hawaiian movement happened on Molokai. An interesting thing to note about Molokai is that because we don’t have a long airport runway and [there isn’t] a place where international flights come, we’ve been very fortunate to not be exposed to certain plant pests and diseases that exist on other islands. For example, we’re the only place in the state that grows organic papaya and we have a market with Whole Foods and other vendors nationwide. There’s a tremendous opportunity for farmers to take advantage of the biological purity that we have.
What was the goal of this course series?
As we look at sustainability, we have to create food security. Hawaii is the most energy-insecure state and imports 85-90 percent of our food. Working with our community partners to create food security for all of Hawaii, [what] we’d like to do is see Molokai become a living canoe for the traditional Hawaiian food crops, among others. If we begin to re-seed our mountains and create food forests, planting the best varieties for the climate, we’ll find the ecosystems will thrive—and we’ll thrive.
We wanted to create a “training the trainer” platform for local residents until we created a strong base of permaculture knowledge to do earth repair—especially from the damage of overgrazing and conventional agriculture, where mono crops and chemicals totally degrade and acidify the soil.
Why is permaculture important and how have these concepts been implemented so far?
Permaculture is really about a lifestyle and holistic way of thinking. The first step is to observe. You have to look at the wild energy going through your property and with land diagnostics asses what resources are on hand. It’s all about diversity. When you have a diverse amount of organisms, you are able to create stability and resilience in a system. In the past, we’ve looked at only planting native pants. We have to change our thinking to realize that a lot of our native plants were not exposed to the kinds of extreme conditions we have today. To help the native plants along, you must use non-native companion planting to bring the native ecosystem back. Pioneer species are hardy and can begin to repair the soil. As the land begins to recover, these plants die off or reduce in their number, and the prominent, productive trees flourish. For example, haole koa may be thought of as a pest, but it is in fact a nitrogen-fixing plant and has a deep-set root system that draws up minerals from the soil. We learned about how and what plants benefit each other—like what plants provide more nutrients to the soil and can be used as living mulch, what plants repel aphids, nematodes and fruit flies, and how some plants can even act as a living fence and protect other plants from foraging animals.
We also learned a lot of practical, hands-on gardening skills like sheet mulching and measuring the soil’s pH. Geoff Lawton teaches about creating edible food forests and swales that harvest and divert rain water. A great way to learn more about the specifcs is to watch his YouTube video, “Greening the Desert,” where he transformed the most barren desert landscapes into healthy self-perpetuating ecosystems.
How soon do you hope to see your efforts come to fruition?
Healing the land will take a number of years. But the day after we finished our swale the big rain came and we got to watch it fill up with water. That was really cool. Because we really want to focus on local people—especially kids who will carry out this lifestyle—on the last day of our classes, we went to the high school and taught 200 students about permaculture. We’re working with teachers and administrators to incorporate it into the curriculum. There hasn’t been an agricultural program for many years and they want to revive that.
But of everything I think the most exciting thing we learned was that it is possible. It will take time, but if it can be done in dessert places that are not as blessed as we are, the hope for what we can achieve is very moving.