Some of the most valuable lands in ancient Hawaii were located in Kaneohe, and prized by kings and chiefs. There on the windward side of Oahu, mountain springs flowed into acres of terraced loi that grew kalo in fertile soil, and then ran down to a bay ringed with two dozen ponds teeming with fish.
While kalo and fish once thrived in the Heeia ahupuaa, it later became the place where plans for “highest and best use” went to die. Starting in 1912, Libby, McNeill and Libby Co. badly damaged or destroyed at least five ancient Hawaiian sites to clear land for pineapple, according to Bishop Museum research. When pests and disease wiped out the crop in the mid-1920s, kupuna said it was a consequence of the heiau’s destruction. Ranching in the area later eliminated much of the ground cover, which led to soil erosion and runoff into Kaneohe Bay.
During the Japanese real estate bubble of the late 1980s, Kamehameha Schools considered selling the meadowlands of Heeia for $25 million to a Japanese investor who wanted to build a golf course, but community outrage killed that plan. Instead, in 1992, KS swapped 405 acres of its Heeia land for land in Kakaako controlled by the Hawaii Community Development Authority, the same state agency that oversees Kakaako and Kalealoa. Despite the land swap, KS remains the biggest landowner in Heeia, while smaller landowners control the rest.
The fishpond and lands of Heeia ahupuaa sat unused for two decades. Deadlocked between two forces – the community’s opposition to development and the landowners’ fiduciary responsibility to raise money for their beneficiaries – they fell into disrepair. But now three nonprofits – Papahana Kuaola, Kakoo Oiwi and Paepae o Heeia – are trying to reconcile these two needs and, in the process, expand the criteria for how land is valued in Hawaii.
State and federal agencies, Kamehameha Schools, the Harold K. L. Castle Foundation and the Hawaii Community Foundation give roughly $1.5 million annually to the three agricultural nonprofits of Heeia ahupuaa. Mitch D’Olier, chairman of the Castle Foundation, recognizes the dilemma that Heeia poses for foundations and government agencies: Should they be pouring money into an ahupuaa that is still recovering from decades of ecological inattention or would the money be better spent helping individual beneficiaries in other ways?
“Some of the questions we need to ask are: If we fund these organizations, do they serve an educational mission for individuals and their families and do we still have enough money to support individual beneficiaries and their families in other ways?” D’Olier explains. “Because there are all kinds of needs in this place: hunger, housing, education. And this is an important question for landowners with education missions, because they have a community obligation to provide funds for education.”
D’Olier recognizes the cultural significance of these sites, but he also sees potential pitfalls: “When I am in the loi, I get it, it feels right, it feels pono, but it’s also an economic train wreck, because without free land and free labor it doesn’t work. Selling kalo and poi doesn’t make enough money.” D’Olier is interested to see if this can be reversed through a new economic model.
His concerns about the financial future of the ahupuaa are summed up in two questions: “Will we end up with 35-year-old taro farmers and fishpond operators who are on welfare because we trained them in something that isn’t economically sustainable, and are we irrationally creating and funding new charitable activities that will need to be endowed?”
In response, the three agricultural nonprofits say their restoration of Heeia is valuable in many ways and will eventually be economically self-sustaining. With the help of the community, the nonprofits and their supporters plan to transform the ahupuaa into an education site with environmental benefits, and create a test lab for social entrepreneurship in Hawaii.
“If we were only looking at a financial bottom line, we would not be making this choice, in this way,” explains Ulalia Woodside, the regional assets manager for natural and cultural at Kamehameha Schools’ Land Assets Division. In the past, Woodside explains, KS leased and sold its lands solely to generate income. “Like typical land managers, KS would lease out its lands, then use that rent money to fulfill its education mission: to build classrooms and hire teachers. Those teachers would be inside a building, and could point to a picture of a fishpond. Today, we still to need fund teachers and buildings, but we also see that the fishpond is the classroom. And, our site managers like Hiilei Kawelo [of Paepae o Heeia] are the only ones that can deliver that lesson. How much more difficult and costly it would be to replicate that fishpond experience in the classroom?” For KS, it is economically more efficient and pedagogically more powerful to deliver those lessons in Heeia.
As students come to the valley to learn, they also clear invasive species and replant native plants, and the Hawaii Community Foundation sees value in the three nonprofits’ ecological contributions.
“We support these organizations because they are necessary to restore the ecosystem,” explains Josh Stanbro, Director of the Environment and Sustainability Program at the foundation. Stanbro says fertilizers and pesticides utilized by large-scale farming can damage the watershed. Conversely, Papahana Kuaola and Kakoo Oiwi use agriculture to improve water quality, which makes them an attractive model.
“If there are two groups applying for a grant to improve water quality, but one of those groups gets the same results using sustainable agriculture that supports a revenue stream, we’re going to support the two for one,” Stanbro says. He believes that organizations with dual purposes, such as nonprofits that generate income through social entrepreneurship, “are the future.”
The jury is still out on whether these organizations will grow and sell enough produce or fish to make money, but Castle Foundation president and CEO Terry George is optimistic: “I don’t think these groups have less of a chance of succeeding than a for-profit. I would argue they have a better chance because they have a sense of obligation to their ancestors and the next generation.”
As George sees it, the goal of the three nonprofits is “to build an economic engine that will generate revenue streams that do not detract from their mission, but instead actually pay for it.” By working with youth and teaching them skills, George argues, these programs fill needs that have not been met by market forces. These needs include building resiliency in youth as they rebuild the fishpond or weed the loi. “The impact of their efforts can be measured monetarily in the reduction of recidivism, improved graduation rates and increased employment,” George says.
In contrast to the exuberance of her supporters, Hiilei Kawelo, executive director of Paepae o Heeia, looks at her fishpond and at the numbers, and sees challenges. Paepae o Heeia has a license agreement with landowner KS. Program fees, donations, and the sale of hats, shirts and agricultural products cover 23 percent of the nonprofit’s $550,000 a year operating budget; grants and donations cover the rest.
Paepae o Heeia is tasked with restoring its fishpond, which includes a broken seawall, and with educating the community on Hawaiian culture and the science of traditional Hawaiian aquaculture. Pointing to the fishpond, Kawelo asks, “This will be productive, but when and how much?” Farmers can add fertilizer to enhance their soil, but, “A fishpond is not a farm. You cannot amend the pond. We are dependent on everyone; we are vulnerable to the military, to upstream, to runoff. There are so many unknowns and it sort of sucks.”
She tempers expectations about the pond’s productivity. “People want fish, but where are we going to get seed stock? Are we going to pay 50 cents per fry only to have it all eaten by barracuda? We want to proceed with caution because we’re taking a traditional system and sticking it into a modern economy.”
In her effort to restore the pond, feed her community and make payroll, Kawelo gives voice to the clash of two systems of value: the traditional Hawaiian practices that require intense labor, open land and fresh water, and the capitalist market that assigns value based on maximizing profit. “People look at us and we’re not where they’d like us to be [in productivity]. If we did have fish, instead of selling it, I would want to give it to our kupuna. I wish we lived in a bartering economy, where everyone who does work gets fed the best stuff. In our desire to grow up and satisfy what everybody needs, we don’t want to compromise who we are as a people.”
For her, raising fish is an act of sovereignty. “Depending on containers of food is not sustainable. We’re Hawaiian, we’re on an island, we need to be independent.”
The nonprofits’ dependence upon their foundations and government agencies makes them eager to become economically self-sustaining. Kakoo Oiwi, which sits just upstream of Heeia pond, educates students and community members in using traditional Hawaiian agriculture to restore the watershed and protect Kaneohe Bay. It holds a 38-year lease with the Hawaii Community Development Agency on 405 acres – land that had been largely unused in the first two decades since HCDA acquired it from KS.
Of the three agricultural nonprofits in the area, Kakoo Oiwi occupies the most space, yet receives the least funding. With an annual operating budget of $398,000, last year it earned 15 percent of total revenue from the sale of paiai (steamed, mashed taro) and produce. The rest of its budget largely depends on the goodwill of the state Legislature.
Jan Yoshioka, Kakoo Oiwi’s chief financial officer, says the nonprofit grows taro, dragon-tongues, shishito peppers, habaneros and pickling cucumbers and sells them directly to restaurants. It also grows traditional produce such as banana, ulu (breadfruit) and uala (sweet potato). “We’re taking steps to diversify our revenue streams in an effort to supplement grants and donations and enhance our economic sustainability,” Yoshioka says. But Kakoo Oiwi has faced many challenges: Last year, pigs wiped out a quarter of the kalo crop, a plant that takes nine to twelve months to mature. Recruiting and retaining staff has also been difficult; the local community faces many social and economic challenges, Yoshioka says, and, “We initially underestimated the amount of support outside the workplace that would be necessary for some young people to thrive.”
Since then, Kakoo Oiwi has learned to invest as much in the people who come to the loi as it invests in the land. Yoshioka acknowledges that her team has a long way to go: “When I look at the fields of grass that sit in the shadow of the Koolau, I think, ‘This is so overwhelming. We can’t manage all this space yet.’ ” At the same time, it is also inspiring. “There is hope that we will be able to rebuild this ahupuaa. If we can restore the environment, that will allow productivity and we’ll be OK,” Yoshioka says.
Papahana Kuaola, at the top of the valley, focuses on cultural and environmental education, stream restoration and replanting native flora that hold back sediment from washing into the bay. Through the sale of plants – kalo, ulu, uala, mamaki (a small native tree with medicinal properties) and lai (ti leaf) – and program fees, Papahana Kuaola generates 20 percent of its $940,000 operating budget. It owns 12 acres and leases 57 more from various owners, with KS being the largest landlord. It is one of the most financially secure nonprofits in the ahupuaa, in part because of its founders’ roots in the for-profit nursery Hui Ku Maoli Ola. Program director Matt Kapaliku Schirman explains how the organization began: “The nursery that Rick Barboza and I started in 1999 is what allows us to pay ourselves.” By pulling out thirsty, non-native plants that tax the water system and replanting native species, Hui Ku helps restore the health of the watershed. The native plants they sell are tied to traditional Hawaiian practices, Schirman explains, and “we use our education programs to replant and share our culture.” When they first opened the nursery, “we realized people didn’t even know how to pronounce the Hawaiian names of these plants. Hui Ku helps to educate people, but, at the same time, we’re marketing our products. That’s the benefit of being a social entrepreneur.”
For the people who live and work in Heeia and their supporters, the highest and best use of the land goes beyond the wealth it generates. To understand the value of the land, D’Olier explains, “You need to let it tell you what it wants to be. Every person relates to a piece of property differently, so you need to recognize how important is this land to the island, how important is the land to Hawaiian history and culture? What is the history of that place and who has generational ties to the land?”
Those who have lived in and fought for these lands compare Heeia to a jewel. “Rubies,” explains Mahealani Cypher, the past president of Koolaupoko Hawaiian Civic Club, “are prized because they are not easily obtained or made. There is a connection to this land and its people that goes back hundreds of years, and we need to use it well, to preserve its value.”
Neil Hannahs, who has stewarded the ahupuaa for decades as the director of the Land Assets Division at Kamehameha Schools, believes, “We need to look at the total repair of the ecosystem and the culture. We have to recognize that maintaining a connection to these lands, maintaining a kinship with haloa (taro), gives us our identity as a people. Having clean water that you can drink from the stream, there’s not an economic return on that, but there is value.” The land reminds Hawaiians who they are – it acts as a source of culture, history and, ultimately identity.
Rev. Robert Nakata, who fought to protect the land from development in the 1970s, sees the work of the three nonprofits as part of a continuum. “There weren’t enough of us to fight the political fight and restore the land, so we fought and won the legal battles. Today more young people have gotten involved,” he says. Those young people are continuing the work that others started long ago.
Like Nakata, Schirman is convinced the valley can produce food and income. “You need to look at the ahupuaa as a startup, and these grants are the seed money. What these grants are doing is investing in individuals and in a community that will eventually be economically sustainable.”
A Favorite of Alii
As testimony to the value of Heeia in ancient Hawaii, chiefs and kings held the ahupuaa for themselves.
Chief Kahanahana kept a residence in Kaneohe from 1773 to 1783, when Maui Chief Kahekili defeated him. The new chief and his warriors lived in Kailua, Kaneohe and Heeia. The final conqueror, Kamehameha I, then claimed the land for his personal use and, upon his death, passed it to his sons.
His second son, Kamehameha III, gave Heeia ahupuaa to Abner Paki, who gave it to his daughter, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop. Her inheritance established Kamehameha Schools, which remains the ahupuaa’s major landowner.