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WAILUA NUI, MAUI — “That right there, what they’re doing is very important,” says Ed Wendt. “I want to plant there next week.”
He’s pointing to a field in East Maui blanketing the slope below him where men and women are turning over dirt to prepare another taro patch. It is late morning and Wendt is standing on his family’s ancestral land facing the rows and rows of taro plants sitting in foot-deep water.
As he talks, water rushes down a man-made stream behind him and a sliver of blue ocean is visible in the distance.
Four years ago, the view was drastically different. The water dried up, the consequence of stream diversions by Alexander & Baldwin, one of Hawaii’s largest landowners, for its vast sugar holdings in East Maui. Wendt ended up substituting pumpkins because it was so dry. Jungle grew over the fallow land.
A court ruling in 2016 forced the release of several streams and Wendt has spent the last three years restoring the farm with his family, neighbors and help from local nonprofits.
But it’s a bittersweet victory after three decades of legal and political battles that seem to have no end in sight.
It’s a fight that’s pitted one of Hawaii’s most powerful companies — Alexander & Baldwin — against farmers like Wendt and advocates for Native Hawaiian traditional and cultural practices.
The company has diverted streams from East Maui to its sugarcane fields since before the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom. After more than a century of diversions, the 2016 decision forced the company to release several streams, replenishing Wendt’s land and other properties. But some diversions continue, and the issue involves multiple streams, multiple landowners and is far from resolved.
Alexander & Baldwin has said that they have complied with the law. A spokesman declined to comment for this story.
The Legislature this week failed to approve a bill to give A&B a seven-year lease to continue stream diversions. House Bill 1326 would also have helped utility companies and several other farming and ranching businesses. The political debate pitted business interests and Gov. David Ige against environmental groups.
But for Ed Wendt and his wife Mahealani, the fight has always been both personal and cultural. Wendt, a combat veteran, feels like he’s been forced to spend nearly half his life engaging in endless legal and political battles because it’s his kuleana as a Kanaka Maoli.
“I went to a foreign country to kill Vietnamese to protect your rights from the communists. To me this is a battle. This is my home,” he says on a recent morning.
He’s sitting outside their plantation house, on the property the couple shares with his son and their goats.
Wendt says for many years, A&B’s diversion of streams made it nearly impossible for him, his sons and many of his neighbors to cultivate taro. He used to run a poi mill but was unable to sustain it.
“Our food source, our water source, our culture was torn apart,” he says.
One day the patches would be dry. The next day it would rain and the taro would be nourished. But soon the water would dry up again and the plants would get really hot under the sun.
The next time it rained, the earth would be cracked and the water would be hot. Six months into growing, some of the taro would be rotting. A year later, half the crop would be ruined.
Wendt calls what happened “cultural genocide.”
“We lost decades, two decades of teaching our own children to farm,” he says. “You cannot farm if you don’t have no water.”
His eldest son gave up on farming. His youngest kept trying but struggled. They weren’t the only ones.
The Wendts’ neighbors, Jerome Kekiwi Jr. and Norman Bush Martin, say the lack of water kept their own taro fields dry for years too. Martin got a job at the county because he couldn’t rely on farming for income anymore. But both say they can’t imagine leaving farming completely. Something always draws them back.
“It’s the love for the haloa,” Martin says, referring to taro.
“The love for the kupunas, you know what I mean?” Kekiwi says. “The love for the aina and the water.”
Wendt remembers watching his son Lance trying to grow taro when the streams dried up. Lance picked up a huli — a taro stalk — and put it into a bucket of water, trying to make it grow.
“It turned me inside out,” he says.
Wendt grew up farming in East Maui, the sixth generation of a long line of Hawaiian farmers. The orange tree in his backyard is 150 years old.
But taro is more than just a family tradition — for many Hawaiians, it holds deeper significance, Mahealani explains.
They believe taro was created by Wakea, the Sky Father, and Ho’ohokuokalani who had a stillborn child. The family buried the child in the earth, and Ho’ohokuokalani watered him with her tears. The stillborn grew into taro, which became the brother of the Hawaiian people.
When Wendt was a kid, A&B was already diverting streams, but farmers’ frustration grew as water became more scarce. By the 1990s, farmers were so frustrated that kupuna asked Wendt to be their spokesman. Hundreds had signed a petition urging A&B to give the water back.
It would take a lot more than asking to achieve their goal.
Getting the water back has involved going to the Water Commission, the Board of Land and Natural Resources and the courts. It’s meant multiple lawsuits and months of contested case hearings. By now, some of Wendt’s fellow plaintiffs have died.
The conflict has also meant awkward disagreements with neighbors. Alexander & Baldwin and its subsidiaries have been major employers on Maui for decades and employ many Maui residents.
The early years were the worst, Wendt says. The trick, he says, is to “eat humble pie” — listen to your neighbor’s frustrations and try not to get upset.
“The humble pie sour,” he says, half-jokingly.
By now, Wendt, who is in his 70s, and Mahealani are exhausted. The group recently had to repeat a contested case hearing after A&B decided to stop its sugar operations.
A&B has sought to continue its existing stream diversions even after selling the sugar lands to another company. Efforts to get a longer lease for diversions approved by the Legislature this year prompted Mahealani to fly to Oahu to testify.
“It tears me apart,” her husband says. “I’m overwhelmed with all of this. The length of time it has taken.”
Over the years, Wendt has become familiar with the details of Hawaii’s constitution and now can recite the names of A&B executives and state officials from memory. More than a decade ago he met and married Mahealani, who was then the head of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation, the nonprofit that represented his case. By 2019, they have told this story many times.
Mahealani Wendt sums up their philosophy like this:
“The most important thing is that Hawaiians have a home in their homeland,” she says. “Anything that separates them from the land or water that are essential to their identity as native peoples, I think we have to do whatever we can to protect it.”
The whole process left both of them even more disillusioned with the legal system and with politics than when they started out.
“This is about sovereignty,” Wendt says. It’s about “being able to go to the taro patches, being able to go to the ocean.”
Farming full-time may be increasingly difficult as the cost of living in Hawaii rises, but preserving taro fields provides a physical space to practice Hawaiian culture as more of the islands are paved over to make way for hotels and high-rises.
Like Kahoolawe and Mauna Kea, fighting for the restoration of streams has for the Wendts become another way to push for indigenous self-determination in a land where their way of life is increasingly rare.
The Wendts live an hour and a half away from Kahului, down the winding, narrow road that follows stunning cliffs lining Maui’s eastern shore. The road to Hana is among the island’s top tourism attractions, and it’s common to see tourists parking on the roadside to photograph the breathtaking views.
Over the past few decades, Maui has gotten a lot more crowded and urbanized. The county’s population soared 63% between 1990 and 2017. But in the census block group that encompasses Wendt’s neighborhood, the community is shrinking. The population fell 12% over the same time period, from 1,107 people to just 975 people.
Wendt knows that’s true without looking at the data. Many of the people who signed the original petition to A&B are dead now. Some moved away for better opportunities and jobs. The schoolhouse closed and now kids take buses to classes further away.
“Of course people have to move away,” he says. “They have no food, they have no job, so people, you know, move away. So eventually, no more people.”
Wendt says he understands because he also once worked in construction as a carpenter and building contractor. But when he goes to visit his mother in Kahului with its big box stores and wide roads, he feels like he’s in California.
He doesn’t want the same thing to happen to Wailua Nui — nor for the valley to be completely emptied of the families like his who have lived there for generations.
Nationally, farmers have struggled to make ends meet and find younger people to carry on the work. Cultivating taro in rural Maui means pulling grass, turning mud and other manual labor that can be grueling with no harvest for at least a year.
But there is hope. The Wendts have partnered with local nonprofits like Malama Haloa to restore the taro fields.
On a recent morning, Joseph Henderson, 29, is among several men chopping branches to clear Wendt’s farmland of invasive species. Further down the slope, other staffers turn over mud to prepare another taro patch.
Henderson says he’s one of several staffers at the local nonprofit who spend several days a week learning at Wendt’s farm. On other days, they prepare poi for schools. It’s part of what it means to be Hawaiian.
“It means everything to get the water back. That’s our number one kuleana as Kanaka is to malama haloa,” he said, referring to protecting taro. “It’s sacred.”
Some afternoons Wendt goes down to the beach near his house to fish. There’s a cove where the river meets the ocean and the saltwater waves engulf the freshwater stream, lapping over smooth blue-gray stones.
Since the streams were restored, Wendt sees more seaweed and more fish. The fish can now swim upstream, all the way up the waterfalls and back, he says. It’s like the cove has new life.
This is one of the places he disappears to when he gets too frustrated dealing with everything. This time, he lingers and it’s clear he doesn’t want to go home for another call with his attorney.
An hour later he’s sitting with Mahealani, their son Lance and three other taro farmers outside their home. Together they make up the group representing the district, which is made up of Ke’anae and Wailua Nui.
Kekiwi is the new president of the group, known as Na Moku Aupuni O Ko‘olau Hui. Wendt resigned last year to make way for younger leadership. It was Kekiwi’s father who originally asked Wendt to lead the group.
Kekiwi kept trying to farm his family’s land but it wasn’t easy. Getting water meant dropping what you were doing on the farm, going up the river and coming back down with water. Thousands of huli died, he says.
“We were cleaning streams and rivers without water. Just waiting and waiting,” he says.
Taro doesn’t grow from seeds. Farmers take the stem of a taro plant, and replant it. The manual labor requires turning mud, digging ditches and clearing brush. To grow, the plantings needs a lot of water, plus ducks to protect them from invasive apple snails.
Kekiwi wishes his father and others were alive to see the water come back.
“There’s nothing that can replace all the times that we lost, you know? All the people we lost, all the huli we lost,” he says.
“The species of taro, the species in the river, that we lost, the opihi, the opai, the io ai, the fish, the whole ecosystem that we lost. Now we try to bring back and replenish again —”
Martin interrupted his fellow farmer, ““It’s going to take a while.”
“I always tell them,” Wendt says. “It took 150 years to put us in this situation. It going to take 150 years to get us out.”
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