HomeBBC NEWSTravelHawaii's ancient land management system

    Hawaii’s ancient land management system


    With over 1000 years of practice, the ahupua’a land development system has the potential to show the world a new path to sustainable development.

    Walking the paths of Limahuli Garden & Preserve, my jacket soaked with the persistent rain that is unique to Kauai’s lush North Shore, I bend down to introduce the placard introducing Pritchardia limahuliensis, a native fan palm endemic to the Hawaiian Valley that breathes the sweet scent of white hibiscus koki’o ke’oke’o, once thought to be extinct.

    But when I arrived in Lima Huri eager to see these rare plants in this 17-acre national tropical botanical garden, I was soon drawn to something even more fascinating: intricate terraces of ancient rock walls climbing up the valley and disappearing into the dense jungle. The highland forests above. Carbon dating indicates they are more than 1,000 years old, and they are part of the ancient ahupua’a, a complex system of land management and food production that once made Hawaii’s isolated and densely populated pre-contact communities completely self-sufficient.

    Prior to contact, there were more than 50 ahupua’a on Kauai and hundreds, if not thousands, more on other Hawaiian islands.

    Described by Hawaiians as extending from the mauka (mountains) to the makai (ocean), each ahupua’a begins high on the crest of an inland volcano and then widens like a pie to include a stretch of coast and fishing ground up to a mile out to sea. The channels divert stream water to irrigate lo’i kalo (lowland taro pond fields), which are designed to circulate water between ponds and prevent stagnation. The result: five times the yield per acre of dryland agriculture.

    Each ahupua’a ran from the inland mountains to the sea, taking in a stretch of shore and ocean fishing grounds (Credit: Hunter Dale/Getty Images)

    Where freshwater streams meet the ocean, elaborate stone wall fishponds mix the nutrient-rich water of the taro ponds with the tides, creating ideal conditions for fattening the fish caught through the gates. The highlands are considered wao akua (realm of the gods) and are inaccessible to all but those with knowledge of forest management.

    If you had an abundance of water then your land was rich and you had an abundance of food

    “The important understanding about ahupu’a is that water is the organizing principle,” says Davianna Pōmaika’i McGregor, professor of ethnic studies and director of the Oral History Center at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “In Hawaiian, our name for water is wa’i and our name for wealth is wa’i wai, because if you have plenty of water, then your land will be rich and you will have an abundance of food.”

    In the Hā’ena community on the remote northwestern tip of Kauai, decades of efforts to preserve and restore the last examples of intact ahupu’a are bearing fruit. limahuli Garden & Preserve, part of Hā’ena, has now restored 600 acres of agricultural terraces. hui Maka’āinana o Makana is a grassroots community group, which includes many descendants of the original Hā’ena families, has rebuilt taro ponds and revitalized traditional mountain-to-sea land management, while also creating the first state-sanctioned community-based marine fishery.

    In the process, Hā’ena has become a model for efforts to preserve existing ahupua’a throughout the island and to restore other islands long ago destroyed by pineapple plantations and cattle ranches.

    “The ahupua’a system is very comprehensive, considering the ecology of the entire watershed as well as the farmland and fisheries as one place,” says Leiwan, director of the Lima Huri Garden Reserve, who is descended from one of the original families. Hana. “This is the way we’ve managed our resources for centuries, and now we’re going to look around and see how much they understand and care about the environment they’ve left us today.”

    Limahuli Garden & Preserve has restored 600 acres of agricultural terracing (Credit: Joel Zatz/Alamy)

    Across the island, a bold and diverse coalition of community activists, scientists and environmentalists are working with the state government, the Park Service and private landowners to re-establish traditional sustainable practices. By making their efforts internationally notorious, they are transforming them into a modern environment – a key goal in a U.S. state that now notoriously imports 85 percent of its food.

    “ahupua’a is a guide map to Hawaii from a fully traditional Hawaiian perspective, taking you back thousands of years and giving you ideas of the people who have lived there and have been stewards of the land,” said Sam ‘Ohu Gon, senior scientist for the Pacific Biocultural Initiative, a University of Hawaii Manoa, a project of the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “It’s a gateway to all the knowledge of the past that is completely applicable today.”

    In fact, Gon says, the ahupua’a system, also known as moku, can simulate a way to feed and provide for the planet’s rapidly growing population in the face of climate change. “Through these intensively managed agricultural and fisheries systems, Hawaiians are able to maintain a very small ecological footprint, using less than 15 percent of the terrestrial ecosystem, while supporting hundreds of thousands of people with no external inputs,” he explains.

    Traditional fishponds were part of the ahupua’a system, providing local communities with aquacultured seafood (Credit: Travel Pix/Alamy)

    Scientists used models of the spatial distribution of these ahupu’a to calculate their potential past production and distribution capacity, and then assessed their future potential in contemporary land use and a range of future climate scenarios. They found that these levels of production could meet the needs of today’s Hawaiian consumption.In 2018, the United Nations selected Hawaii as a Local2030 Sustainability Center, an honor that recognizes the strength of the state’s community-led organizing efforts and its potential to serve as a role model for others.

    On every island in Hawaii, projects are underway to restore native species, reforest uplands destroyed by grazing, reclaim estuaries, rebuild taro fields and fishponds, and protect marine fisheries. While in most areas development has prevented the rebuilding of the entire ahupu’a system, new signage projects are marking the boundaries of the historic ahupua’a and increasing awareness of the overall system.

    Hawaiian culture was actively suppressed, so finding those enclaves where that traditional knowledge is still alive is always a joy

    “We’re identifying communities that have long-standing relationships with the land and sea, and then working with them to combine the best science with the best methods of local communities,” Gon said. “Hawaiian culture is actively suppressed, so it’s always a pleasure to find those enclaves where traditional knowledge still exists.”

    A major force behind this knowledge sharing is the Oahu-based nonprofit Kuaʻāina Ulu ʻAuamo (KUA), which serves as a trailhead to connect grassroots indigenous and local natural resource management initiatives throughout the islands. Through coalitions like Hui Malama Loko I’a, a network of fishpond restoration practitioners, KUA helps organizers share approaches, strategies and ideas.

    “The idea is that once you have a core community doing these projects, people start to see the positive impacts and they want to bring these changes to their own communities,” says Kevin Chang, director of KUA.

    Travellers can head to Waimea on the western side of Kauai to see to a respected ahupua’a restoration (Steve Burns/Getty Images)

    The KUA’s most notable success stems from efforts to establish Community-Based Subsistence Fishing Management Areas (CBSMAs), which give coastal communities primary responsibility for setting fishing rules, which may exclude commercial fishing. It’s a movement that has grown rapidly in recent years. “Each unique community has traditions and practices about how they fish and manage their fisheries, and we know that natural resources are managed more effectively when local authority is given to people who are directly dependent on and knowledgeable about the resource,” said Chang.

    Wann said that while some people may not consider ocean fishing an element of land management, that is exactly what is happening in ahupu’a. “Caring for the land means your oceans will be healthier, and part of ahupua’a includes the practice of using resources to make the oceans richer, and that’s what we’re still doing today in the 21st century – we’ve never stopped. “

    Ground-based initiatives are also making progress. one of Gon’s favorite examples is the Auwahi Forest Restoration Project, a partnership between local communities and one of Maui’s largest ranching families, which has been working on a site-by-site basis since 1997 to reforest upland areas on the slopes of Haleakala volcano that were destroyed by cattle grazing. gon says, “it started out as a small unit surrounded by blasted grasslands, and now it’s so successful you can see the forest from space.”

    Visitors can learn about ahupu’a’s renaissance at a growing number of parks, botanical gardens and preserves. ahupuaʻa ʻO Kahana State Park, located on the east side of Oahu, preserves 5,300 acres from Ko’olau Peak at 2,670 feet all the way to Kahana Bay. waimea Valley, a park known for its thundering waterfalls, is also a revered Waimea Valley is a park known for its thundering waterfalls and is home to the revered ahupu’a restoration. On Hawaii Island, the Amy BH Greenwell Ethonobotanical Garden preserves the archaeological remains of the ahupu’a terraces.

    Since 2019, only 900 visitors per day can hike the famous Kalalau Trail along Kauai’s Na Pali Coast (Credit: Cavan Images/Getty Images)

    “The new generation sees the importance of doing this farming and reclaiming the heritage from our ancestors,” McGregor said. “With students learning our Hawaiian language again, a lot of people are coming who want to strengthen their ties through stewardship of the land.”

    Visitors to Hawai’i also play an important role in ahupua’a’s revival, Wann said, with initiatives that create new ways for visitors to learn about traditional agriculture and fisheries management and limit access to conservation resources. In Haena, for example, a new permit system launched in 2019 limits the number of visitors to Haena State Park and the Kalalau Trail to 900 per day, with advance reservations required for access.

    “People often think of the ahupua’a system as a thing of the past, but we’re definitely increasingly recognizing that it can be a part of today’s Hawaiian society,” Wann said. “We’re creating an ahupua’a for the 21st century.”

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