A Hawaii renewable energy company wants to buy a third of the island of Molokai.

Lamplighter Energy, which develops and operates energy projects around the globe, is gauging public support for its 40-year plan to purchase the 55,000 acre Molokai Ranch for $260 million. With the land, the company would farm an organic biofuel and sell it to South Korea.

Singapore-based GL Ltd. put the ranch property up for sale last November. Whoever buys it will become Hawaii’s seventh largest landowner.

“We hope to move Molokai back into 100 percent diversified agriculture,” said Lamplighter CEO Andres De Rosa, who estimates his operation would employ 200 people. “That’s the goal.”

Molokai Ranch measures 55,000 acres, or approximately one-third of the island. The land hit the market last November following an emotional battle between Singapore-based owner GL Ltd. and local residents. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

The biofuel is kenaf, a fast-growing hibiscus cannabinus prized for its ability to absorb toxins from the soil. The crop sprouts in slender stalks that can grow up to 16 feet tall. Lamplighter would ship the product on a barge from the west end of Molokai directly to South Korea.

The buyer is Korea Electric Power Corp., which wants to immediately phase out coal. KEPCO, South Korea’s version of HECO, would burn the biofuel at seven power plants over the next two to three decades until it’s ready to transition to wind and solar power, according to De Rosa.

Lamplighter would farm the crop on 20,000 acres. Another 5,000 acres would be made immediately available to local farmers. Over time, Lamplighter’s contract commitments would decline with South Korea, thereby allowing more and more of the farming acreage to be leased out for diversified agriculture. Within 30 years De Rosa estimates that all kenaf farming would phase out.

All told, 30,000 acres of shoreline and valleys not suitable for farming would be set aside for open and controlled access uses, such as swimming, hunting and hiking. De Rosa said he would like elected community groups to manage these activities as needed.

As part of a broader mission to halt soil erosion and restore the island’s depleted aquifer, Lamplighter would fund some reforestation efforts while exploring new technologies, such as solar desalination, to make water for farming.

Lamplighter has its financing in place and will soon be prepared to make a formal purchase offer, De Rosa said. If the project goes through, De Rosa said he will move his residence to Molokai.

“We aren’t sitting here saying that we know what’s best for Molokai,” said De Rosa, who lives in Waianae. “I’m from Oahu. I’m still learning. But this land was always a farm and it should always be farm. That’s our idea.”

Looking For A Hero

Molokai Ranch used to be the island’s biggest employer. But after residents rejected the company’s plans to build 200 luxury homes at Laau Point, the ranch shut down its beachside vacation homes, high-end lodge, the island’s only movie theater and the only gas station on the west side.

The closures in 2008 put 120 people out of work. The island’s unemployment rate shot up from 6.2 percent in 2007 to 13.7 percent in 2009.

“We’ve been looking for a champion for a long time,” said Molokai resident Bronson Kalipi, who owns a charcoal company and serves as president of a nonprofit that perpetuates Native Hawaiian traditions in aquaculture. “Everyone would look at him as one hero if he follows through with what he says he’s going to do.”

But desperation for jobs is outmatched by the residents’ unwillingness to endorse any activity that could disrupt their agrarian lifestyle.

In a 1981 survey, Molokai residents ranked family togetherness, a rural lifestyle and a slow pace as their top priorities for the community. Jobs came in seventh. A 2008 study found that little had changed.

“The people of Molokai are overprotective with our island,” Kalipi said. “It might offend him, but it is what it is.”

Inside the main room at the shuttered Molokai Lodge furniture and decor sit in wait of their future. 

The vast majority of Molokai’s acreage is owned by the state and foreign investors. But when it comes to land use issues, locals have a proven record of employing the power of protest to tip the scales of influence in favor of the people who live here.

Famous for scaring away developers hawking plans to build hotel resorts or million-dollar vacation rentals, the island’s 7,400 residents have forged a consensus around the belief that such shiny, new instruments of tourism threaten to spoil the wild landscape.

A popular bumper sticker reads: “Don’t change Molokai, let Molokai change you.”

Over the years, community members have protested everything from the airport’s expansion to proposed wind farms. In 2011, residents waved signs saying “Go home” when a 36-passenger cruise ship sought to dock.

Protesters last year went so far as to block a luxury yacht from docking in Kaunakakai Harbor because its passengers had not made known to locals their desire to tour the island.

“Molokai people are fighters,” said Michael Kumukauoha Lee, a Hawaiian cultural practitioner from Oahu. “You need the support of the people because if you don’t have that nothing is going to happen. They’re willing to say, ‘Hit the road, Jack. We’ve lived here hundreds of years, we’re all related, we don’t need you and your money and your big plans.’”

The pitfall of this hidebound distaste for tourism and development is that a good-paying job — or any job, really — is hard to find. The unemployment rate on Molokai is more than double the state average.

On an island where a gallon of milk can cost upwards of $7, a third of the residents receive food vouchers through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Many locals hunt, fish and farm their food out of preference, but also out of necessity.

Inside the closed Molokai Lodge, an open door lends a view from the hallway into one of the old rooms. 

Lee, who is providing the Lamplighter team with cultural guidance, said he applauds any plan that has the buy-in of the people — especially if it would also bring in good jobs and help restore the land’s depleted natural resources.

But Lee said De Rosa must translate his plan into guarantees. He said he has encouraged De Rosa to sign a bill of conveyances so that any agreements Lamplighter enters into with the community will be legally binding.

“These guys on Molokai have seen all kinds of business people offering all kinds of pie in the sky stuff, and in the past they have gotten burned,” Lee said. “There has got to be black and white legal documents that hold the company’s feet to the fire. The worst thing you can do to these people is get their hopes up and give them a wish list like Santa Claus is coming.”

Tired Of Playing Defense

Ben Rodrigues, a Maui tugboat tankerman, said he is working with Lamplighter to help ensure that the project protects Native Hawaiian cultural values. He launched the Facebook page Kokua Molokai to open a communication channel between the company and the public.

“This place used to be a lush ohia forest and because of the introduction of cattle it was completely decimated,” Rodrigues said. “How do we reforest? How can we recharge the aquifers? We are coming up with solutions that are sustainable.”

Walter Ritte, a longtime anti-development activist, said residents are tired of playing defense against speculative land buyers. 

“The sale of the ranch is going to decide Molokai’s future,” said Ritte, who attended a small, improvised presentation that De Rosa gave about Lamplighter’s proposal earlier this month.

“So when this guy comes over here and told us that he was ready to pull the trigger, as he puts it, we were like, ‘Wait a minute.’ This community needs to have a say. We want to make sure we can control our future.”

Ritte said De Rosa’s approach to consensus-building so far — impromptu, one-on-one and small group conversations — has left some residents feeling in the dark.

“If it will make for a better future for Molokai, then everybody’s on the same page,” Ritte said. “But he needs to come talk to everybody. That was his big mistake and I don’t know if we’re going to be able to overcome it.”

Ritte said he asked De Rosa to hold off on making the purchase for six months so the community can draft a list of the conditions under which it will agree to support a new buyer.

Ritte said he’s still waiting for an answer.

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