Imagine this scenario.

You’re sitting in your house one morning. There’s a knock at the door.

A stranger is standing there. He looks at you and says, “I’d like to move into your house.”

You look at the stranger like he’s a crazy person, because it’s a crazy request. You sternly answer “No!” and try to shut the door.

The stranger forces himself into the house and plops himself onto your couch. He looks at you and says, “I’d like to live here with you now.”

You, again, say “No!” and ask him to leave immediately.

He again ignores you and proceeds to rummage through your refrigerator looking for something to eat.

You have said “no” repeatedly. You have told him to leave.

He looks at you and says, “We can co-exist here!”

It’s a crazy scenario, but it’s happening.

Kahuku Turbines arrive with Senator Gil Riviere on Friday, October 18, 2019.
A wind farm in Kahuku is one of several recent projects that have touched off protests from communities that feel they didn’t have a say. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

It’s happening on Mauna Kea. It’s happening in Hunananiho. It’s happening in Kahuku.

Why bother to ask permission to come into the house, if you’re going to barge in regardless of how anyone answers?

Taken at face value, all three of the projects now facing significant community backlash are seemingly benign. The Thirty Meter Telescope is without doubt a world-class facility. A park, when considered abstractly, is surely a community asset. A wind farm, an important contribution to renewable, clean energy, isn’t bad on its face.

So what happened?

Four words: The system is broken.

Some lawmakers will tell you that the process worked and that it’s time to follow the law. They will tell you that the process worked exactly as it was supposed to. The project developers followed the process.

The thing is, and this is what they fail to understand, the process itself is flawed.

It seems that when people on the front lines of these conflicts talk about “the process,” they’re actually talking about something different from “the process” referred to by lawmakers.

When lawmakers and developers speak about “the process,” they mean the legal steps a project moves through to obtain government-issued entitlements to proceed. This is not an unreasonable interpretation, and it’s important to have such a process where individuals or groups can understand and reasonably assess how to obtain approvals.

But this isn’t “the process” communities are talking about. They are talking about it from a much higher vantage point. They are really calling for a fair, just and transparent decision-making process.

This is an important distinction.

Waimanalo Supporters gather for Honolulu City Council park committee meeting at Honolulu Hale.
The construction of a park in Waimanalo met widespread opposition. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Developers expect, and reasonably so, that if they meet all the prerequisites set forth in statute and regulation, that a favorable outcome is required. Honestly, this is sometimes how it works. Depending on how the regulations are written, if a project meets all the specified requirements, the applicant may have a right to a permit.

This is not how many communities see it. Rather, they expect that public sentiment should influence decision-making. In other words, even if a project checks off all the boxes, if it does not have a reasonable level of informed community support, it should not be allowed to proceed.

In the end, the current system is a lose-lose. Project developers don’t know how to reasonably assess risk if there is not a clear process by which approvals are issued, and communities feel alienated by bureaucratic proceedings that seems to leave little to no room for meaningful community engagement or decision-making.

As predicted, Mauna Kea has proven to be a game-changer. In the absence of leadership and meaningful engagement, communities have created their own spaces to demonstrate their discontent and opposition.

While effective in raising visibility, there’s no doubt these actions are costly to both government and community. The responses by law enforcement feel excessive. Arresting community members, many Hawaiian and from rural areas, is a painful illustration of the ways in which a government that has repeatedly failed Hawaiians never fails to pour resources into criminalizing them.

The bottom line is that the system is broken. It categorically fails to create a clear and meaningful role for communities, and until the decision-making process can be fixed so that it is both clear for developers and fair to communities, it’s unlikely the conflicts will end any time soon.

So rather than focus on resolving the conflicts around individual projects, we should be creating a better, more efficient, transparent system. Communities are pushing back, not because they arbitrarily want to, but because they feel deeply and sincerely that they need to.

And if the growing numbers of arrests and acts of resistance aren’t a reflection of a systemic failure of government, nothing is.

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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.