A few days after Christmas, Mark Zuckerberg shared a series of photographs of his family at their $100m, 700-acre property in Kauai. The Facebook CEO and his wife “fell in love with the community and the cloudy green mountains”, he wrote, and decided to “plant roots and join the community ourselves”.
Two days later, Zuckerberg’s lawyers filed lawsuits against hundreds of Hawaiians who may own an interest in small parcels within the boundaries of Zuckerberg’s estate. The “quiet title” suits, first reported by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, are used to clarify the often complicated history of land ownership in Hawaii and can result in owners being forced to sell their land at auction. In some cases, defendants are even required to pay the legal fees of the plaintiff – in this case, the world’s fifth richest man.
Zuckerberg’s lawsuits have prompted a backlash from locals who place the billionaire within a long, painful history of western conquest and Native Hawaiian dispossession.
“This is the face of neocolonialism,” said Kapua Sproat, a law professor at the University of Hawaii who is originally from Kauai. “Even though a forced sale may not physically displace people, it’s the last nail in the coffin of separating us from the land.”
“For us, as Native Hawaiians, the land is an ancestor. It’s a grandparent,” she added. “You just don’t sell your grandmother.”
Kauai, known as the Garden Island, has long been a favorite playground of holidaymakers, Hollywood film-makers and millionaires on their second or third homes. The vine-choked forests, plunging waterfalls and broad sand beaches have served as the backdrops for films including Jurassic Park and Pirates of the Caribbean while the laid-back rural cool and mellow tropical vibe has attracted rock stars, celebrities and at least one Russian billionaire.
But the acquisition of vacation homes by wealthy malihini (newcomers) exacerbates a social chasm keenly felt by kamaaina (native-born or longtime residents of Hawaii).
“People have always seen the value of living in Hawaii, in paradise, and for many generations now, it’s been a detriment to us,” said Kauai council member Mason Chock. “They’ve come in and purchased land and raised the value so much. Only people from abroad or outside Kauai can even afford to live in Kauai now.”
Nearby a bluff overlooking north Pacific swells, a one-mile lava-rock wall demarcates a property which, from the road, is attractive but unremarkable. A sign reads “thank you for not trespassing”, but nothing suggests the land belongs to the Facebook CEO.
The problem is that it doesn’t. Not all of it, anyway.
Before westerners came to Hawaii, stewardship of the land, or ‘āina, was a collective responsibility, characterized by the familial relationship to the land described by Sproat. Privatization came in 1848 with the Māhele, which began the process of divvying up parcels between the king, the government and the people. The Kuleana Act of 1850 was intended to allow Native Hawaiians to claim title to lands they were cultivating, but ultimately less than 1% of Hawaii’s land area was granted to indigenous people.
Over the generations, ownership stakes in many kuleana parcels have been divided among descendants, and some Hawaiians may not even know they have a claim on the land. It is this confusion that quiet title lawsuits attempt to dispel.