Farmers restoring Hawaii’s ancient food forests that once fed an island. airy

Farmers restoring Hawaii’s ancient food forests that once fed an island. airy

RAin clouds cover the peaks of the West Maui Mountains, one of the wettest places on the planet, maintaining for centuries biodiverse forests that provided abundant food and medicines for Hawaiians, who took only what they needed.

Those days of abundance and food sovereignty are long gone.

Rows of limp lemon trees struggle in wind-blown sandy slopes that ended decades of sugarcane cultivation. Agricultural runoff associated with sea reef and water scarcity, tourism and global warming threaten the future viability of this paradise island.

85% to 90% of the food consumed in Maui now comes from imports, while dietary diseases are on the rise, and the state allocates less than 1% of its budget to agriculture.

Down from the rain-soaked summit, there is historically dry and rotting soil.

“We believe that land is prime, people are its servants,” said Caipo Kekona, 38, who, along with his wife Rachel Lehualani Kapu, has turned several acres of degraded agricultural land into a dense food forest on a mountain ridge.

The farm of Caipo Kekona has transformed from a depleted farmland to a dense food forest. Photo: Bee Oyster/The Guardian

The soil there is once again full of life, with wrinkly insects and multicolored insects busy among the flaky roots and mulch. This edible forest provides a glimpse of the ancient forests that flourished on these slopes for millennia, until being burned several times for harvest – a cultural and ecological tragedy documented in traditional songs, chants and stories.

The couple are indigenous farmers – possessing ancient wisdom – and are part of a broader food and land sovereignty movement gaining momentum in Hawaii.

This is a big challenge. Traditional Hawaiian farmers not only have to contend with historical droughts, erratic rainfall and deadly natural pathogens, but also industrial agriculture in Hawaii and the dominance of foreign capital. The state became the biotech GMO capital of America after welcoming Agrochemical Transnational to open research areas with fewer restrictions on potentially toxic pesticides.

There are no pesticides or synthetic fertilizers in the food forest of Kekona and Kapuu in Maui. Cover crops and tillage are also out. “Traditional farming is about facilitating natural processes to feed the soil so that the land can feed us,” Kekona said.

Indigenous agricultural practices in Hawaii are guided by lunar cycles and wind patterns, knowledge that was passed down orally through generations, and even in newspaper articles going back to the 19th century was documented. These oral histories and archives have played an important role in how farmers such as Keikona, who did not grow up speaking Hawaiian due to forced assimilation policies, manage the land today.

On the left, the field is full of lush green plants. On the right, in the hands is a yellow-green milo fruit.
Capo cacona bears fruit from a milo tree that produces a bright yellow-green color. The children of Kaipo used the dye made from the fruit as paint at their summer camp. Photos: Bee Oyster/The Guardian

Colonial settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries stole land, water and labor to build industrial monocrop plantations – mostly sugar and pineapples for export – until the entire island was a vast thriving food forest. It depleted the Maui people of their nutrients, carbon and water from soil and food and climate security.

“The goal is to take down the empire and turn those corporate edge people into something more environmentally sustainable that reflects our values,” said Kekona, who is part of the Indigenous Sovereignty Movement, which seeks to protect Hawaiians from their land and rights. Connects with traditions.

organized chaos

A canopy system is central to a food forest. In Kekona’s farm, sugarcane, papaya, coconut, mango, coffee and candle nut trees provide shade and absorb water, nutrients and leaf litter, while mosses and ferns help suppress weeds and distract insects. help. In between are cash crops such as the starchy root vegetable kalo (taro) – a traditional Hawaiian staple revered as an ancestor – sweet potatoes, breadfruit, turmeric and peppers, while other nutrient-rich crops are used mostly for mulching or fertilizer. is done for.

A green tree stretches towards the sky, its trunk is full of fruits.
Papaya trees help form a canopy system that is at the heart of a food forest. Photo: Bee Oyster/The Guardian

It looks chaotic compared to systematic monocropping, but each plant takes what it needs to thrive, contributing to the growth and development of its peers and future generations. The 30 phases of the moon used in the traditional Hawaiian calendar determine when to plant, weed, water, and harvest.

Cardboard, compost and organic mulch are layered like lasagna to regenerate the soil, while beds made of logs create inviting nooks for microbes to thrive. Fish carcasses, seaweed, shells and other sea scraps are mixed with fermented plants such as coffee husk to make organic fertilizer – a Korean technique adapted to Maui.

In contrast to industrial agriculture, diversity is important: there are nine varieties of avocado and coconut, three native bananas, six sweet potatoes and 27 varieties of kale in orange, purple and brown. Some are reputed to have starchy sweet roots used for oatmeal, others produce delicious leaves and stems for stews, and one variety smells and tastes just like popcorn. Drought tolerant varieties are becoming increasingly important.

Non-native species such as passionfruit, lemongrass, papaya, perennial groundnut and coffee are cultivated to enrich the soil with nutrients such as nitrogen, provide shade or wind cover or simply because they taste good .

“It’s a continuous cycle, everything exists simultaneously at the same time, with crops always feeding the soil and nurturing each other,” Kekona said. “This forest is the essence of the food system, which our ancestors passed down to us for centuries.”

Maui is one of the largest islands of Hawaii, a Polynesian archipelago located 2,500 miles off the west coast of the US mainland, making it one of the most remotely populated land masses on the planet. It is a subtropical biodiversity hotspot, where flora and fauna have adapted to a wide range of ecosystems and micro-climates over millennia, but ecological destruction over the past century has also made it the extinction capital of the world.

Map of Hawaii with the island of Maui highlighted in red.

At its heart, the vision of traditional Hawaiian farming is about creating an enduring relationship between community and agriculture by re-establishing the connection between culture and the land. It is not just about looking back, but merging ancient regenerative farming practices with modern tools and technologies to meet the climate and food challenges facing Hawaii in the 21st century.

It’s not easy. Access to land, water, credit and housing is disproportionately controlled by the economic and political elite, namely large ag and tourism.

One firm, Monsanto, now owned by German pharma giant Bayer, operates on Oahu, Molokai and Maui – where it produces genetically modified products used in cooking oil, processed foods, alcohol and animal feed. Develops corn varieties, testing new seeds with potentially unknown combinations. Toxic agricultural chemicals.

Bayer is one of four agrochemical corporations that control 60% of the global seed market and more than 80% of pesticide sales.

Dark red dirt from Maui’s research and development areas, surrounded by three types of metal fencing, spills over into downstairs residential areas that have a coating of fine particles even when windows are closed .

Last year, the company was fined $22 million after pleading guilty to multiple criminal charges for the illegal use, storage and disposal of dangerous and banned chemicals. Monsanto was described as “a gradual violator of federal environmental laws” by a Justice Department attorney.

The Guardian’s request to visit the Maui research facilities was denied.

Over the past decade, agrochemical companies such as Monsanto have used lawsuits and political lobbying to delay and limit regulations on GMO crops and pesticides in Hawaii, leading many ordinary farmers and lawmakers to believe agriculture would collapse without them. Will go

But the pandemic exposed the dangers and fragility of the global industrial food system, causing an almost existential crisis for island communities such as Maui, which depend on imports and tourism for economic and food security.

Two women and a man stand at a table and pack the produce into boxes.
Maui Hub, co-founded by Autumn Ness, Wright, is the island’s first farm box service that connects small farmers and growers with residents. Photo: Bee Oyster/The Guardian

“Letting a chemical company pollute the island to feed the world while we are suffering from food insecurity is beyond irony,” said Autumn Ness, Hawaii program director for Beyond Pesticides and co-founder of Maui Hub, which Connects to the island’s first farm box plan. From small farmers and producers to residents.

“What’s stopping Hawaii from feeding its people isn’t a lack of knowledge or skill, it’s the power structure, the ongoing plantation mentality that tips the scales in favor of big AGs and developers, bucking conventional wisdom.” We need to change this narrative, because without radical changes, what will be left of this place in a hundred years?”

A Bayer spokesman said the company’s research “diligently complies with federal and state pesticide laws … We place the highest priority on the safety of our products and the sustainability of the land where we live and work.”

forest family

At Hokonui Farms in the Central Valley, 37-year-old Koa Hewahewa and her family of forest dwellers blend generational indigenous knowledge and modern techniques to repair damage from decades of intensive animal husbandry and pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.

A woman with a flower behind her left ear helps a young girl to direct a water hose to the plants.
Kahku Ritte-Camara, forestry assistant manager in Hokunui, waters plants on the farm. Photo: Bee Oyster/The Guardian

The restoration project is basically about rain and cooling the climate to return pollinators – forest birds that were wiped out or forced to move to higher altitudes to escape avian malaria that spreads mosquitoes . (The mosquito line, the altitude at which insects cannot survive because it is too cold, has increased significantly due to deforestation.)

The forest is thought to resemble an extended family, somewhat cumbersome and unpredictable but resilient and strong together separately. Tall flowering acacia and myrtaceae trees are naturally occurring donors that capture fog and rain to distribute moisture outward like lawn sprinklers and down through roots to recharge aquifers. go towards. Whereas groundcover plants like moss and ferns act like a living mulch and create a healthy ecosystem for all kinds of useful microorganisms.

Two men, visible only at the waist, cut leaves in a red loosely woven bag.
The Hōkūnui farm flourishes on 25 acres of edible and non-edible codependent plants, a technique known as Polynesian agroforestry. Photo: Bee Oyster/The Guardian

So far they have turned 25 acres of lifeless land into a thriving, organized mess of edible and non-edible codependent plants, a technique the family calls Polynesian agroforestry.

Hevahaeva said: “Our yields may not match those of industrial farming, but our return on investment is healthy land and water that we will leave for our children …

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