Many recognize the complexity of sugar’s legacy in Hawaii.

On one hand, it brought diverse people, visually appealing fields of green cane, hundreds of jobs, and other benefits.

On the other hand, the sugar industry facilitated the overthrow of our sovereign nation; diverted nearly all water for its own use, killing native ecosystems and native farming; suppressed workers seeking to unionize, manipulated local politics, and so on.

An aerial view of the sugar mill on Maui owned by Alexander & Baldwin.
An aerial view of the soon-to-close sugar mill on Maui owned by Alexander & Baldwin. Alexander & Baldwin

Unfortunately, the winding down of sugar does not appear to ensure a similar winding down of its influence.  The big agricultural corporations are still at it.

They have introduced bills to force the state to sell public lands that they are now leasing to the likes of Monsanto, to cement their practice of spraying dangerous chemicals on our aina and our people, and to authorize unlimited diversions of public water from our streams in perpetuity.

This insanity must stop. Producing low-value commodity crops for export from highly valued land in the middle of the Pacific has proven itself to be a recipe for failure.

To make the most of the historic opportunity this moment presents, we must refuse to entertain doomsday predictions of dust bowls, condos and chemical projects. Instead, we must embrace the opportunity to make things right again.

Now it is the perfect time to cultivate agricultural enterprises that actually serve our collective best interests, not undermine them. Hawaii needs long-term and innovative solutions for the future of agriculture that go deeper than simple “diversification.”

I have a vision of healthy, organic farms growing high quality products for local markets, and value-added products for off-island markets; employing thousands, and adding millions to our economy.

Imagine our islands hosting large-scale tropical agroforestry projects that provide building materials, fruits, vegetables, seed crops, medicines, cosmetics, biofuels, and yes, jobs.

Imagine thriving mosaics of family farms, rotational grazing for diverse livestock, and state-of-the-art facilities for processing and distributing food. This kind of future requires many new and valuable skill sets that will build a strong local culture and economy, with the potential for thousands of skilled, living wage jobs.

These are all within our grasp if we would just let go of the belief that large-scale mono-crop industrial agriculture is our only alternative. It is not.

It is time to stop dumping chemicals on the aina where we grow our food, and diverting our streams to the death of indigenous farming practices that rely on them. We need to start using regenerative agriculture techniques to remediate our soil and aquifers.

We need to restore our watersheds, reduce the sediment runoff that kills our reefs, and prioritize the mauka-to-makai lifeline that is our streams.

As we move forward in this time of opportunity, let us make our voices heard to ensure that our leaders let go of that bygone era when large corporations decided what was best for us.

Let us make sure that Hawaii benefits ecologically, financially and culturally from the decisions we make. Our kupuna showed us the way, and we owe it to our keiki to recall their wisdom.

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