Correction: A previous version of this story included information that was copied from and not properly attributed to a Hawaii Public Radio story on the same topic. It also took information from a Honolulu Magazine article on the Kumulipo without proper attribution. Those lines have been removed. 

For years, a group of farmers on Kauai have struggled to grow their kalo.

University of Hawaii Student Stories project badgeThat group, the Waiʻoli Valley Taro Hui, has been navigating the complex process of obtaining a water lease from the state.

Hawaii Revised Statutes Chapter 171 regulates the disposition of water leases in conservation districts, which carries many complex requirements, including right of entry permits, streamflow standards, environmental assessments and more.

“We the farmers of Waiʻoli need this water,” Chris Kobayashi, a third generation kalo farmer, told lawmakers during a hearing on Feb. 23.

Lawmakers are advancing a measure that would lift some regulatory hurdles facing kalo farmers. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

In a hearing on Feb. 23, members of a legislative committee discussed House Bill 1768, which would allow kalo farmers to be exempted from obtaining a water lease to use the instream water for traditional and customary kalo cultivation practices.

Instream flow is the water flowing in a stream channel, from which many loi kalo get their water.

“In the wake of the 2018 floods, both the North Shore and these farmers were devastated, and as a result in the disaster recovery process these farmers were informed that they would need permitting or exemptions from Chapter 171,” University of Hawaii law professor Kapua Sproat said during the hearing.

Uʻilani Tanigawa Lum, an attorney also working with Sproat, said that farmers “shouldn’t need a lawyer to be a farmer.”

Lum pointed to the Waiʻoli Valley Taro Hui’s Environmental Assessment for the group’s lease.

“(The) EA confirms the instream use of water for traditional and customary kalo cultivation offers significant environmental benefits, (and) the analysis supports the idea that farmers in Waioli improve the environment and provide crucial stewardship of the aina and its resources,” Lum told lawmakers.

Rep. Mark Nakashima said during the hearing that he is happy to support traditional practices of native Hawaiians and growing taro in a traditional manner.

Makahiapo Cashman, Director of Ka Papa Loʻi O Kānewai on Oahu, also supported the bill and said he sympathizes with the farmers in Waioli Valley.

“Having water is the key,” Cashman said. “When you’re growing taro on aina that feeds people, water is most important.”

He said that the bill allows the kalo farmers to fill their basic need, “they need water into their loʻi, into their systems, into their community, into their ocean. It’s like breathing, it’s like cutting off their air. That’s what water is to everybody.”

Cashman added that the instream water is beneficial for loʻi, and the water systems of the community, in general. The instream water goes through a channel which then goes through the ʻauwai, naturally watering the kalo, then the water is reunited with the main stream going to the ocean.

“It’s not about having the water, but having moving water is critical because taro needs cool water, and cool water is moving,” Cashman said. “That means the water isn’t stagnant and warm. It’s constantly moving.”

The amount of time and effort it takes to tend to a loʻi requires a daily routine. Kalo farmers not only work on growing the crop, but they also need to constantly assess the flow of water. Cashman said the water’s natural path is important. It requires identifying critical places that need care, not only for the lo’i but for residential properties, too.

“If a flash flood occurs above us, we get hit. If the flash flood occurs below us, blocking off the stream, it’ll rise up and we’re affected,” Cashman said. “So eventually that domino effect hits you — that’s why it’s a community effort. It needs to be a community effort.”

Heavy floods on Kauai in 2018 also devastated farms. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat/2018

Kalo is not only a food resource, but is also a part of native Hawaiian genealogy, tracing back to the Kumulipo, a Hawaiian creation chant.

The cultivation of kalo is not only an important traditional and customary practice, Cashman said, but also a sign of love and respect for native Hawaiian ancestors. Native Hawaiians, he added, play a vital role in preserving and advancing the quality of life through these practices.

HB 1768 passed committee hearings in the 51-member House, and now faces a floor vote before moving to the Senate for further consideration.

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