Native Hawaiians Turn to Ancient Traditions to Save Their Reefs

August 8, 2018

The mountains on the windward shores of Oahu, Hawaii, are prone to clouds. On a recent breezy summer day, though, it wasn’t water vapor that filled the air, but smoke. The mangroves were aflame. Local farmers were burning the invasive species to make room for taro, a native crop Hawaiians have grown since ancient times.

The root vegetable is more than a coloring for your purple milky bubble tea. For the Native Hawaiians who’ve learned to cultivate more than 300 varieties of the plant, it’s a cultural touchstone. Many of their creation stories stem from taro.

Today, rice paddies and sugar fields have largely replaced taro patches in Hawaii, but it’s making a serious comeback in He‘eia north of Honolulu. Since 2017, Native Hawaiians have been restoring taro patches, also known as lo‘i kalo, as part of a federally-designated estuarine research reserve with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Through this partnership between government, community groups, and academia, participants hope to revive an ancient sustainable land management system to improve the region’s water quality. But if the project proves successful, it would do more than that. It would demonstrate that traditional knowledge can help tackle some of Hawaii’s most pressing environmental challenges, from collapsing coral reefs to invasive species.

Traditional knowledge is slowly finding its way into academia, especially as our deteriorating environment drives scientists to seek out new sources of information. Turns out, lots of solutions have been here all along even if western science has largely ignored them. This taro restoration project is the first of 29 sites in NOAA’s National Estuarine Research Reserve program—which focuses on protecting the ecosystems where freshwater meets saltwater—to integrate Native management practices to more modern ecological restoration efforts.

The management practice being revived in the 1,385-acre He’eia National Estuarine Research Reserve in He‘eia is that of the ahupua‘a. Sections of land managed according to this ancient model include everything from the mountains above to the ocean below—the idea being that everything connected by the flow of water should be treated as a single system.

“The kupuna (elders) of He‘eia were the first stewards of this ahupua‘a,” Kristina Kekuewa, NOAA’s regional director for its coastal management office in the Pacific Islands, told me. “Their knowledge shares generations of observations, insight, and wisdom. It continues to be guiding principles for the entire community, as well as a baseline for our scientific research.”

The Hawaiian islands used to be full of ahupua‘a that local konohiki, or overseers appointed by a chief, would manage with the help of luna, supervisors who specialize in various things. But the ancient system got lost amid development and colonization.

“We think the ahupua‘a system can work anywhere in the world.”

In the piece of the traditional He‘eia ahupua‘a where the new research venture focuses, taro patches play a key role. The research partners—which include the Hawai‘i Institute for Marine Biology and the Native Hawaiian cultural preservation nonprofit Kako‘o ‘Ōiwi—ultimately, aim to improve the region’s water quality, which has been degraded by runoff and urbanization. History suggests that this inconspicuous tuber is up to the job of both trapping sediment and removing pollutants.

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