It must be hard to know what a “good project” is anymore.

Seemingly benign projects are finding themselves facing mounting opposition. It has to be confusing to those peering in from the outside.

But just as important as trying to unpack why some projects find themselves facing resistance is making sure that projects striving to develop a better model for community engagement, particularly projects working closely with Native Hawaiians, receive the support they deserve.

On Friday, the Board of Land and Natural Resources accepted the final environmental impact statement for the Kawainui-Hāmākua Master Plan Project in Kailua. The project still has additional permits to obtain.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the site, it is 1,000 acres consisting of wildlife sanctuaries and historic resources. It is perhaps best known for Ulupō Heiau — a towering site with wall features measuring as much as 30 feet high. It’s been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1972.

The Department of Land and Natural Resources involved numerous Hawaiian cultural practitioners in developing a long-term plan for the Kawainui marshlands outside of Kailua. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

The entire cultural landscape of Kawainui is its own marvel. Rich with cultural sites including loko ia (fishponds), loi kalo (wet pond fields where taro was cultivated) and heiau (sacred sites), the landscape as a whole represents the ingenuity and innovation with which Hawaiians care for lands across the island chain.

Unlike other projects which lacked the involvement of area Hawaiian practitioners, the development of the plan for Kawainui-Hāmākua engaged numerous area practitioners, including Kumu Hula Mapuana de Silva and her husband, Hawaiian researcher and scholar Kihei De Silva.

The de Silvas, along with numerous other practitioners who have also served as dedicated stewards for this rich, sacred area for years, have worked long and hard to develop a plan that reinforces the return of kanaka to their ancestral spaces.

The project includes plans for a cultural and educational hale, tool sheds, restrooms and other resources necessary for active stewardship and management.

For those who may not actively be involved in the stewardship of land, facilities are necessary. Large landscape areas require resources within a reasonable distance for the safety of the stewards and program participants. The Kawainui-Hamakua plan is not any different than the numerous conservation actions that are critical to the health of our watersheds.

It is unique, and impressively so, in its partnership and commitment to its Hawaiian partners and the support of Hawaiian cultural practices.

Natural resources are cultural resources. They are one and the same. This is where we get the term “biocultural” resources. “Biocultural … approaches are those that explicitly start with and build on place-based cultural perspectives — encompassing values, knowledges, and needs — and recognize feedbacks between ecological state and human wellbeing.”

A grinding stone in the Kawainui marsh in Kailua illustrates how rich the area is with cultural sites. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Hawaiian cultural practices are both a human right and a constitutional right. Time and time again, we see research that demonstrates that the enhancement of indigenous rights is overwhelmingly beneficial to the environment.

“Indigenous peoples and other in situ communities manage lands and seas that hold significant portions of the planet’s biodiversity and carbon stocks. In addition, place-based communities have generated creative resilient responses to global pressures, despite experiencing outsized impacts from them.”

Therefore, it is concerning when we see environmental groups opposing the good, productive work of Hawaiians. Those groups and many Kailua residents were fierce critics of the plan, arguing that building paths in the area would attract crowds of tourists and threaten the ecology of the marsh.

It is an alarming reflection of how non-Hawaiian groups both refuse to trust legitimate Hawaiian practitioners to make management decisions in their ancestral lands, and refuse to give deferential respect to these practitioners when the rare opportunity arises for Hawaiians to regain responsibility over biocultural resources.

It is important when Hawaiian practitioners take the time to commit their energy and their knowledge to a project. It is important to listen to them.

Maunakea, Hunananiho and Kahuku mark critical opportunities for environmentalists and practitioners to come together. It’s a long overdue alliance, but it is an alliance that has been elusive because environmentalists, particularly those who are not Hawaiians, have been reticent to relinquish governance and decision-making authority to the islands’ indigenous people.

The endangered ae’o or Hawaiian stilt birds make their home at Kawainui marsh in Kailua. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Indigenous governance and management authority are central to effective conservation actions. Internationally, this basic human right is being more globally recognized. It’s been more recognized because it works. But it does force non-Hawaiians, particularly those who consider themselves “allies” of Hawaiians, to confront some incredibly uncomfortable moments regarding the colonial and settler histories of the islands.

I have often said Mauna Kea is not about a telescope. It is not. At its core, it is about governance and decision-making. It is about Hawaiians and their refusal to be denied self-determination in their own lands any longer.

Leaders have begun to recognize that the existing conflicts are a reflection of a much longer, problematic history of Hawaii and in particular how Hawaiians have been mistreated in their own homeland.

Hawaiians, as with indigenous peoples around the world, have a human right to have a voice in well-being and management of their own ancestral lands. It is exactly issues like these that led to the passage of the U.N. Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

As we collectively figure out Hawaii’s “new normal” in which Hawaiians refuse to be disregarded, just as important as correcting injustice is the need to stand with practitioners and kupuna who have worked long and hard on just solutions.

The Kawainui-Hāmākua Marsh Master Plan is not only an opportunity to continue the restoration of that landscape, but it is an opportunity to support returning Hawaiians to that land. It is an important plan that will not just sustain the healing of that land, but the healing of Hawaiians.

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About the Author

  • Trisha Kehaulani Watson
    Trisha Kehaulani Watson is a Kaimuki resident, small business owner, and bibliophile. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Hawaii and J.D. from the William S. Richardson School of Law. She writes about environmental issues, cultural resource management, and the intersection between culture and politics. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can follow or contact her on Twitter at @hehawaiiau.