The Hawaii islands were once a thriving food forest until colonial settlers in the 18th and 19th century stole the land, water and labor to create industrial monocrop plantations – mostly sugar and pineapples for export. This depleted the soil of its nutrients, carbon and water, and the Maui people of food and climate security. Between 85% and 90% of the food eaten in Maui now comes from imports while diet related diseases are soaring, and the state allocates less than 1% of its budget to agriculture.
Maui is one of the largest islands in Hawaii, a Polynesian archipelago and one of the most remote populated land masses on the planet. It’s a subtropical biodiversity hotspot, where flora and fauna adapted over millennia to a wide range of ecosystems and microclimates, but ecological destruction over the past century or so has also made it the extinction capital of the world.
Those days of abundance and food sovereignty are long gone.
Rows of limp lemon trees struggle in windswept sandy slopes depleted by decades of sugarcane cultivation. Agricultural runoff choking the ocean reef and water shortages, linked to over-tourism and global heating, threaten the future viability of this paradise island.
At its heart, the traditional Hawaiian farming vision is about creating a sustainable relationship between community and agriculture by reestablishing the connection between culture and land. It isn’t just about looking back, but rather mixing ancient regenerative farming practices with modern tools and technologies to meet the climate and food challenges facing Hawaii in the 21st century. The forest is considered akin to an extended family, somewhat unwieldy and unpredictable but resilient and stronger together than apart. The lofty flowering acacia and myrtaceae trees are natural born givers, capturing fog and rain to distribute moisture outwards like a lawn sprinkler and down through the roots to recharge aquifers. While the groundcover plants such as mosses and ferns act like a living mulch and create a healthy ecosystem for all sorts of useful microorganisms.
“We believe that land is the chief, the people its servants,” said Kaipo Kekona, 38, who with his wife Rachel Lehualani Kapu have transformed several acres of depleted farmland into a dense food forest on a mountain ridge. The couple are Indigenous farmers – ancient knowledge keepers – and part of a wider food and land sovereignty movement gaining momentum in Hawaii.
Traditional Hawaiian farmers have to contend not only with historic drought, erratic rainfall and deadly natural pathogens but also the dominance of industrial agriculture and foreign capital in Hawaii. The state became the biotech GMO capital of the US after agrochemical transnationals were welcomed to open research fields with fewer restrictions on potentially toxic pesticides. In Kekona and Kapu’s food forest in Maui there are no pesticides or synthetic fertilisers. Cover crops and tilling are also out.“ Traditional farming is about facilitating natural processes in order to feed the soil so that the land can feed us,” said Kekona. Indigenous farming practices in Hawaii are guided by the lunar cycle and wind patterns, knowledge which was also passed down orally over generations. The 30 moon phases used in the traditional Hawaiian calendar dictate when to plant, weed, water and harvest. “The goal is to knock the empire down and replace those corporate ag guys with something more environmentally sustainable which reflects our values,” said Kekona, who is part of the Indigenous sovereignty movement reconnecting Hawaiians with their lands and traditions.
A canopy system is central to a food forest. On Kekona’s farm, sugar cane, papaya, coconuts, mangoes, coffee and candle nut trees provide shade and absorb water, nutrients and leaf litter, while mosses and ferns help suppress weeds and distract insects. In between are the 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 mostly used for mulching or fertiliser.
Unlike industrial agriculture, diversity is key: there are nine varieties of avocado and coconuts, three native bananas, six sweet potatoes and 27 types of kalo in orange, purple and brown. Some are coveted for the starchy sweet roots used for porridge, others produce tastier 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 peanuts and coffee are cultivated to enrich the soil with nutrients such as nitrogen, provide shade or wind cover or just because they taste good.
“It’s a constant cycle, everything existing together at the same time, with crops always feeding the soil and nurturing each other,” said Kekona. “This is the essence of the forest food system, which our ancestors passed down to us over centuries.”
At Hōkūnui farm in the central valley, 37-year-old Koa Hewahewa and his family of foresters mix generational Indigenous knowledge and modern technologies to repair the damage caused by intensive cattle ranching and decades of pesticides and synthetic fertilisers.
“Letting a chemical company pollute the island to feed the world while we suffer food insecurity is beyond ironic,” said Autumn Ness, the Hawaii program director of Beyond Pesticides and co-founder of the Maui Hub, the island’s first farm box scheme which connects small farmers and producers to residents. “What’s stopping Hawaii feeding its own people is not lack of knowledge or skills, it’s the power structure, the ongoing plantation mentality which tips the scales in favour of big ag and developers while rubbishing traditional knowledge. We need to change this narrative because, without radical changes, what will be left of this place in a hundred years?”