Lots of people talk about sustainable futures, and for good reason. I don’t know anyone who thinks it is a good idea to leave our collective descendants with a dead planet.

What people don’t talk about as much is the sustainable past. Looking to practices and methodologies that have proven to be sustainable seems like a no-brainer.

Most people who grew up in Hawaii have learned at some point about Hawaiian culture, and something about how Hawaiians managed the natural resources they depended on. Think back to elementary school “Hawaiiana” class, or that ahupuaa poster you’ve probably seen somewhere along the way.

It is an accepted fact that Hawaiians lived sustainably on these islands from time immemorial. Not just surviving, but thriving and multiplying. Nobody really questions that history.

AMAC Chair Les Kuloloio speaks to members of the public at the group's Oct. 20 meeting.
AMAC Chair Les Kuloloio speaks to members of the public at the group’s Oct. 20 meeting. Walter Ritte

It seems obvious: since it worked so well back then, why not take a clue from it now? They clearly had the right idea.

“That’s ancient history,” you may say. “How does that even apply in the 21st century?”

It’s a great question, which can be taken in two ways. One, it questions the value of Hawaiian resource management methodologies, and two, it questions the possibility of contextualizing them within a modern legal system. It asks not only, “Why does it matter?” but also, “How would it actually be applied?”

First, it matters because we are talking about natural resources, the responsible use of which has been the concern of humanity since long before the existence of the regulatory state. We have the same need for clean water, breathable air and functioning ecosystems as our ancestors before us. The food we eat is still made up of plants and animals that need to grow by natural processes. These things will always matter.

If anything, a focus on managing natural resources responsibly is even more crucial now, as resources dwindle and populations continue to grow. It makes sense to think about patterning modern resource management after indisputably successful models. So it definitely “applies” in the first sense.

The second angle, how it would actually be applied, is a question that people around the world have decided is important to address, including here in Hawaii.

When the International Union for the Conservation of Nature held its quadrennial World Conservation Congress in Honolulu last month, the role of indigenous peoples in the global conservation movement moved to the fore. The IUCN created a new third category of membership for Indigenous groups, placing them alongside government agencies and non-governmental organizations. Among the new policies adopted by the IUCN was one affirming the role of indigenous cultures in global conservation efforts. The final output of the WCC was a document called the “Hawaii Commitments,” which includes many references to the need for increased partnership with Indigenous peoples.

Indigenous Hawaiian culture played a central role at the WCC. Oli and hula were featured heavily in the opening and closing ceremonies, and local leaders (Hawaiian and non-Hawaiian alike) consistently held up Hawaiian values, history and culture as examples of how much Hawaii has to offer the global conservation movement. The IUCN as a whole was serious about incorporating sustainable Indigenous best practices into modern law.

If anything, a focus on managing natural resources responsibly is even more crucial now, as resources dwindle and populations continue to grow.

As it happens, Hawaii is already a leader in that emerging paradigm. In 2012, the Hawaii Legislature passed Act 288, establishing the Aha Moku Advisory Committee within the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources. The committee is patterned after the Aha Kiole, the ancient councils of Hawaii. Those councils consisted of respected expert practitioners that addressed place-based local resource management issues.

The AMAC consists of eight poʻo (heads), one from each of the main islands. They are nominated by their respective islands, appointed by the governor and approved by the Senate. The poʻo are tasked with representing the concerns of their islands, as communicated to them by aha councils at the moku (district) and mokupuni (island) levels. The committee meetings are open to the public and subject to state public records laws.

In 2015, the Legislature passed a concurrent resolution requiring that the AMAC promulgate administrative rules. On Thursday, Oct. 20, the AMAC adopted their Final Rules of Practice and Procedure by a vote of six to one (one poʻo was absent at the time of the vote). I highly encourage you to click the hyperlink and read the new rules. You will quickly see that they do indeed incorporate indigenous knowledge and methods into a modern regulatory form.

The new rules require the AMAC to apply traditional Hawaiian methodologies and knowledge when assessing cultural and natural resource management issues. They also describe that methodology, based on input from kūpuna and practitioners from across the islands.

Yes, the document contains mundane clauses about quorum, term limits and the role of the executive director, etc., but the truly historic and precedent-setting portions describe the lens through which the AMAC is to regard the management of natural resources and accordingly how they are to advise the DLNR, its many divisions, and other agencies it consults with.

Dean Maenette Benham of the Hawaiinuiakea School of Hawaiian Knowledge at the University of Hawaii Manoa describes the rules as reflective of “Hawaiian/indigenous knowledge/world-view as well as best practices and methodologies to malama honua.”

She adds, “The document in action provides respectful relations between the state units and the island/moku councils as they work both/and for their mokupuni and collectively for all that feeds and nourishes us.”

When the AMAC met on Oct. 20, the drafted rules received tremendous support from the public and the majority of poʻo. These rules reflect the input of Native Hawaiian communities within the Aha Moku system throughout Ka Pae Aina. Assistant Professor of Law and Hawaiian Studies Malia Akutagawa and two of her law students (myself and Letani Peltier) spent long hours organizing the final document.

The only poʻo to vote against the rules was Keith Robinson of Niihau, who claimed that such rules had no place in the 21st century. Those who had read them, however, approved them with acclaim. What these new rules do is give substance to AMAC’s legislative mandate, empowering them to better fulfill their role of advising the government based on the traditional knowledge that enabled Hawaiians to live sustainably for so long.

In September, conservation leaders from around the world gathered in Honolulu and agreed that indigenous methodologies are very much a 21st century issue. The AMAC, Legislature and DLNR should be applauded for their leadership on this important global issue. With the continued development of collaborative governance and application of the new rules and procedures, Hawaii can demonstrate that our commitment to a sustainable future is more than just lip service.

Indeed, as Hawaiinuiakea Dean Benham notes, the rules are “spot-on!” especially “with the return of the Hokulea and its global message of Malama Honua in 2017, what better homecoming than to show the world that Hawaii’s governing bodies are intelligent, respectful, forward-looking stewards of our homelands.”

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