The debate rages on. Do pesticides have adverse health impacts? Does a healthy and biodiverse food system include genetic engineering? What is the future we want to see for Hawaii’s land and natural resources?

These questions have intrigued many in Hawaii for decades. Lucky for us, we have a set of tools to help us answer them, but doing so is going to mean trying something new: working together.

In 2014, I had the opportunity to come to Hawaii as a filmmaker and conflict resolution practitioner exploring the conflict surrounding pesticides and public health. Having lived and worked in a range of conflict zones from the Middle East to South East Asia, I’ve learned that access to land and water can fiercely divide families and communities. During my visits with over 100 community members and farms across the Islands, I heard narratives and saw power dynamics that mirrored other situations I have experienced around the world.

A sign marks the entrance to Dow AgroSciences in west Kauai. The debate over use of pesticides by major agricultural interests continues to rage in Kauai.
A sign marks the entrance to Dow AgroSciences in west Kauai. The debate over use of pesticides by major agricultural interests continues to rage in Kauai. Anita Hofschneider/Civil Beat

When I met with mothers on Kauai living on Hawaiian homesteads fighting to protect their keiki and the aina ­(children and the land that feeds us) from toxic pesticide drift, I remembered the faces of mothers in the Middle East protesting ever-expanding development that blocks access to their communities’ most critical water source.

When I met with small organic farmers on Hawaii Island struggling to earn a living because the system favors large agrichemical companies over local farmers, I thought of the small-scale (and chemical-free) gold miners in the Philippines who are being forcibly removed from their land to make way for international mining companies – companies that strip the land without giving back to the local people.

To address to these kinds of oppressive situations, people have developed powerful conflict resolution processes over generations to resolve conflict, processes that are battle tested, proven and often a product of deep ancestral knowledge and understanding. That’s why I was delighted to learn that the state would be funding a Joint Fact Finding (JFF) process, a conflict resolution methodology I had seen work well in equally contentious contexts in the past.

The Kauai Joint Fact Finding Study Group report Pesticide Use by Large Agribusinesses on Kauai was originally commissioned by the Hawaii Department of Agriculture and Kauai County Council in response to growing public concern about the human and environmental impacts of pesticide-promoting genetically engineered crop operations in the state.

The Joint Fact Finding methodology is a conflict resolution tool commonly and successfully used for contentious, science-based issues around the world.

The yearlong investigation focused on the impacts of and regulation of pesticide use by Hawaii’s GE seed industry and Kauai Coffee. Voices have been popping up from all sides of the debate, many denouncing the process without really understanding its underlying purpose and intention.

The Joint Fact Finding methodology is a conflict resolution tool commonly and successfully used for contentious, science-based issues around the world. For those unfamiliar, let’s break it down:

  • Joint: It requires a carefully selected and publicly agreed upon group of decision-makers and subject matter experts on all sides of a dispute, known as a working group. In the case of Kauai, the working group selections were largely praised at the onset by community members on all sides of the issue.
  • Fact: It focuses on the best scientific and technical information available in an attempt to sort out the facts from the assumptions.
  • Finding: It is a collaborative process, so members of the working group make tough decisions together on what subject matter experts they will hear from and what content will be included in the final report.

Over the last 15 years, successful JFF processes in a variety of fields, from nuclear energy to children’s health, demonstrate that it is a very useful strategy in creating disciplined, fact-centric dialogue between opposing sides of an issue. JFF absolutely does not replace legislative or judicial decision-making processes; it informs them by resolving some disagreements that are at the root of contentious issues and providing a unique forum of open communication.

As is often the case in conflict resolution, stakeholders on all sides of the pesticide and genetic engineering issue can find some fault with the Kauai Joint Fact Finding Study Group’s report findings and recommendations.

But now the stakes are higher than ever. The debate over genetic engineering and pesticides has become so personal and contentious that as a collective we are losing sight of the real people behind the corporations and organizations that share our home. The agrichemical industry left unchecked could severely impact the health of our keiki and aina, now and for future generations.

By denouncing the JFF process all together, as representatives from the agrichemical industry have done in recent weeks, we are losing out on an opportunity to move forward in a positive way.

Though formidable indeed, the single greatest threat to our environment is not just climate change, or deforestation, or habitat loss or even nuclear war. Rather, it is the persistence of our human disputes over these crises, and our collective lack of will and skill to resolve them.

Today, as conflicts over access to land, water, and natural resources intensify, as we watch the devastating effects of climate change unfold, and as our global exploitation of resources continues unabated, it is vital that we don’t allow ourselves to remain paralyzed. We must find ways to merge our differing viewpoints and, together, advocate for a better future for the planet and all of its inhabitants. The JFF process is one of those ways, and we should support it.

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About the Author

  • Danya Hakeem
    Danya Hakeem is program director for Hawaii Center for Food Safety, a non-profit organization that serves as an advocate for local and regenerative food systems. She earned an M.S. in Conflict Analysis and Resolution from George Mason University where she focused on environmental conflict, narrative-based peace building and the role of media in creating change.