For Kihei de Silva, the Kawainui-Hamakua Complex Master Plan is a chance to reclaim part of Kailua.

The state plan to build pathways and facilities around the marsh in windward Oahu has attracted fierce resistance from many Kailua residents who fear it would open the door to commercializing Hawaii’s largest wetland.

But de Silva, co-director of a traditional hula organization and an expert in Hawaiian culture and history, is one of many Native Hawaiians who sees the plan not as a threat, but as an opportunity to establish an indigenous cultural presence in a town that has long since been gentrified.

“We find ourselves being pushed out to the fringes of Kailua,” he said. “This represents a new stage in regaining our voice.”

Kawainui Marsh in Kailua

Kawainui Marsh in Kailua on December 11, 2013.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

A thousand years ago, Kawainui Marsh was a thriving fishpond, celebrated in Hawaiian culture as the home of Hauwahine, a goddess and spiritual guardian who protected the people of Kailua.

Today, the lush, 986-acre marsh is full of invasive plants and is polluted by runoff from trash dumped along the side of nearby Kapaa Quarry Road. Still, the wetland is a valuable part of the ecosystem, helping to control flooding and serving as home to four species of endangered birds.

The state has spent about three years updating its 1994 plan for the marsh. The latest version released in May proposes removing California grass and other invasive vegetation to help Kahanaiki Stream flow openly, reforesting the upland area with native plants like ‡kaluha and makaloa, and mitigating stormwater runoff by repairing drainage channels.

The plan also includes more controversial aspects such as establishing research, educational and cultural facilities along the periphery of the marsh, and increasing public access by adding sidewalks, parking lots and restrooms.

Kawainui Marsh Draft Plan

Kawainui Marsh Draft Plan (Click to enlarge)

State officials are currently analyzing public comments and still need to put together an environmental impact statement. Even if the plan is approved, it’s uncertain whether any of it will actually materialize, given the state’s limited funding.

Despite its fluidity, many Kailua residents are worried about how the plan could shape the future of the wetland. The Kailua Neighborhood Board and environmental organizations have argued that any buildings or pathways will despoil the marsh and open the door to flocks of tourists. More than 2,000 people signed a petition urging the state to discard the plan.

“The only way to preserve the marsh for its historic and cultural worth is to NOT build anything there, but rather to protect and maintain the existing marsh properly,” the petition reads.

De Silva and several Native Hawaiian community members believe that in order for the wetland to thrive, there must be an active, permanent indigenous presence. Native Hawaiians have a spiritual relationship with land that requires active caretaking, de Silva explained. He envisions restoring the marsh to a fishpond where food is grown once again.

“We have Hawaiians who are willing to stand up and say, ‘We are capable of being again good stewards of the land,’” de Silva said.

Malama Aina

Lehuakona Isaacs is one of those Hawaiians. As president of Ahahui Malama i ka Lokahi, a nonprofit organization that has been working to restore Kawainui since 1994, he has spent countless hours removing invasive plants at Nā Pōhaku on the north side of the marsh and replacing them with native species like koa trees and native hibiscus.

It’s grueling work, but Isaacs feels that it must be done, whether or not the state’s draft plan is approved.

“We are driven by this kuleana, this responsibility, that this is the land of our ancestors,” he said. “We are not asking to do anything different from what our ancestors did.”

Kawainui Marsh Kailua Grinding Stone

A grinding stone in the Kawainui Marsh in Kailua.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Isaacs grew up in Kailua in the 1950s when it was a farming community and there were more Hawaiians like him living there.

Over time, many of his neighbors have moved away, chased out by rising prices and the changing character of the community.

Today’s Kailua is upscale, jokingly nicknamed “Kailuafornia” because of its similarity to an Orange County community. It’s home to the state’s biggest Whole Foods Market, a regional shopping mall and crowded beaches.

Kailua was Hawaii’s most expensive housing market last year and the 20th most expensive housing market in the nation, according to Coldwell Banker’s 2013 analysis of housing markets nationally.

The median household income is $95,190 compared with $67,492 statewide. Just 6.7 percent of residents are Native Hawaiian, and 44 percent are white, compared with respective statewide averages of 10 percent and 24.7 percent.

The census tract for Kailua Town in central Kailua, which has about 3,000 residents, shows that there were some 800 Native Hawaiians in 2000. By 2010, there were about 150.

“We are of the land, and not standing from afar.” —Lehuakona Isaacs

De Silva’s wife and daughter are hula teachers. They travel to other islands in the Pacific to practice and perform, even though many of their dances are about Kawainui. Once home to Hawaiian chiefs, the wetland is ringed by three heiau and still has ancient stones for carving and navigating the stars.

“The irony of all this is that we feel most ourselves when we go away,” de Silva said. “What we’re really inspired by is the ability to belong again to a place, and right now we’re finding that inspiration outside of Kailua when it should be right here.”

His daughter, Kahikina de Silva, who also teaches the Hawaiian language at the University of Hawaii, feels the same way.

“Like the Washington… natives looking out into the world only to find themselves reflected back as Redskin caricatures, we natives of Kailua look out into our own ahupuaʻa and see nothing of ourselves reflected back to us or to our keiki,” she wrote in a letter supporting the plan.

When the state approached the de Silvas, Isaacs and several other Native Hawaiian practitioners in 2011 to solicit their input on planning for the marsh, they jumped at the opportunity to carve out a place for themselves in the future of the sacred wetland.

Despite their involvement, the inclusion of a cultural center and other facilities in the marsh doesn’t guarantee who gets to operate and use them. That will be determined after the state sends out formal requests for proposals.

In the meantime, the work at Kawainui is never-ending. Isaacs’ nonprofit has reforested about 12 acres at Nā Pōhaku, and along with the Kailua Hawaiian Civic Club is growing taro and sweet potatoes by the Ulupo Heiau State Monument on the southwest end of the marsh.

Isaacs said the need to take care of the land goes back to Hawaiians’ belief that their ancestor is the taro plant, which makes people’s relationship with the land both familial and spiritual. He contrasts that with the Western perspective on land conservation, which can involve fencing off areas and leaving them untouched.

“We are of the land, and not standing from afar,” Isaacs said.

Fear of Plan’s Impacts

Many prominent community members staunchly oppose any structures at the marsh.

Out of the 748 acres of wetland and 238 acres of surrounding land, the state draft plan sets aside about 6 percent for programmatic uses such as research or education. The facilities would be spread out around the marsh, and their combined square footage would be 1.2 acres.

Kawainui Marsh Kailua Endangered Birds

The endangered ae’o or Hawaiian stilt birds make their home at Kawainui Marsh in Kailua.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

The Kailua Neighborhood Board submitted comments on the plan in June opposing nearly all of the planned buildings, in addition to the pathways and parking areas. The group supports protecting archaeological sites and adding two small open-air thatched roof buildings for cultural practices.

“Wetlands worldwide are being lost to encroachment and development of this kind, and the best of intentions to build “green or sustainably” can only manage the degree of harm, not prevent it,” Kailua Neighborhood Board president Charles Prentiss wrote.

“We feel in many cases that we are begging for scraps at our own table. Asking for a little bit, and finding that even a little bit is being withheld.” —Kihei de Silva

Prentiss said the board is worried about the state’s ability to pay for and maintain the developments listed in the plan, given its limited budget.

He pointed out that the plan didn’t seem to represent the results of a community survey conducted by the DLNR that showed most residents valued proper marsh management and feared commercialization. Fewer respondents said having a Hawaiian cultural presence was their top priority.

A major concern is whether or not the marsh will attract more tourists who will further clog traffic and ruin the ambiance of neighboring subdivisions.

Kailua residents’ aversion to tourism is so great that the Neighborhood Board passed a resolution last year asking the Hawaii Tourism Authority to stop promoting the town as an alternative to Waikiki.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Laura Thielen from Kailua said the DLNR hasn’t been clear about whether or not certain areas of the marsh will be closed off to certain groups.

Trees at Kawainui Marsh in Kailua

State planners want to add sidewalks under trees ringing Kawainui Marsh in Kailua.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

She supports cultural groups having access to the wetland, but said there’s not enough clarity about what degree of commercialization will be allowed. Right now, the plan simply states that tour groups greater than 25 people would need permits, rather than barring commercialization outright.

“The concern is, once you open these areas, how are you going to prevent them from becoming a magnet for commercial activities which then expand the use from beyond the cultural practices that are desirable?” she asked.

Divided Community

While the debate over the marsh is far from finished, the disagreement has already taken its toll.

“In this fight that we’ve been having, unfortunately, we’ve been losing the respect between two sets of groups that should be allies around the marsh, not butting heads,” Thielen said.

Donna Wong, a member of the Kailua Neighborhood Board and president of the educational policy organization Hawaii’s Thousand Friends, has been involved in planning for the marsh since the 1980s. She said the controversy reached a peak this year.

“Nothing has divided this community, Kailua, more than what’s happening now,” she said. “Controversy has always been in Kailua. This is the first time I’ve seen it take on a racial tone.”

De Silva sees the situation differently.

“The concern is, once you open these areas, how are you going to prevent them from becoming a magnet for commercial activities?” —state Sen. Laura Thielen

“We are engaged in a very real controversy over voice in the community, over leadership in the community, over what you might call prioritization of concerns,” de Silva said. “We feel in many cases that we are begging for scraps at our own table. Asking for a little bit, and finding that even a little bit is being withheld.”

He is frustrated by the Neighborhood Board comments that two small structures would be sufficient.

“Much lip service is given to how much these people honor and respect our culture, but when it comes down to whether they’re going to allow us to practice our culture, whether they’re going to allow us to make decisions for ourselves about what’s best for us, that’s not there at all,” he said.

Kailua resident Maya Saffrey agrees. A hula dancer who writes curricula for Native Hawaiian language classes, she argued in a letter supporting the marsh plan that establishing a permanent presence for Native Hawaiians at the wetland is necessary to help ensure that inter-generational knowledge perseveres.

“Mai kuhi hewa… ola manu na oiwi o Kailua; make no mistake… the natives of Kailua are still here,” she wrote.

That may not always be the case, de Silva warns.

“The longer we wait, the fewer of us there will be,” he said.

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