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Finding the Empowered Farmer


Faith Chase, a 50-year resident of Maui, is a mother and grandmother who has testified at many Maui County and Hawaii State hearings. Her interest in island agriculture inspired her turn from graphic design to writing.

Na Moku Aupuni o Ko‘olau Hui – The long road to water

The first water meeting I went to was 32 years ago. My high school boyfriend asked me to go with his grandfather, the legendary, James Keolaokalani Hueu Jr. Back then the little Ke‘anae School cafeteria meetings were standing room only, spilling out on both sides, people listening through the jalousies, lots of kupuna (elders). Uncle Jimmy, as everybody knew him, spoke for a minimum of 20 minutes, every meeting. I didnʻt speak during those days, I took it all in, it was fascinating, the water theft was a hard to believe story and the passionate testimonies were mesmerizing at times.

The drive to Na Moku Aupuni o Ko‘olau Hui general membership meeting this past Sunday was not the same. I thought of the 20-year block this remote area of Maui had been subject to drugs, jail and loss of water, loss of farmers, loss of life. I thought of how it all might be different if some of our Ke‘anae Braddahs were here. The intensity of the men of this area is well known, one of their best lost his life during the Kaho‘olawe occupation, RIP Kimo Mitchell. While some were labeled radical, at their core, they were farmers.

Itʻs hard not to think how protests for the return of water might be different with the brawn and seriousness of these men shoulder to shoulder. I thought about an image of all the Ke‘anae men no longer with us standing tall in the Ko‘olau mountain range with their strong stares and tall stances looking down at their ‘ohana today. It would make a striking painting or maybe a Photoshop work I thought.

Fight for Water

In 1876, Hawaii Commercial & Sugar (HC&S) created a ditch system to bring water from Mauiʻs eastern most area with 75 miles of ditches, tunnels, flumes and wells. A subsidiary company East Maui Irrigation (EMI) was created to manage these water diversions to serve the vast sugar cane fields of central Maui. The diversions have brought empty stream beds and death to many tributaries. Stream life, marine life and farm life have suffered and are non-existent in many areas.

The community organized Na Moku Aupuni o Ko‘olau Hui, a group to put forward the lead for the return of water to the remote east Maui area of Ke‘anae and Wailuanui. The judicial journey has been long and arduous. Residents and farmers have taken all the proper legal steps to prove their rights to water.

Sugar cane is no longer grown on Maui, the fight for water is more real than ever. It has been known for a long time that A&B kept growing sugar at a loss as a means to hang on to agriculture water use. They have sold all of their farm equipment and are now unabashedly a real estate company, the largest in Hawai‘i. They say they need water for their ag plans, none to which have thus proved any merit.

As attorney Isaac Hall exclaimed for petitioners at a recent hearing, “Trying to grow taro with no water is like trying to drive a car with no gas, it canʻt be done”. Kalo (taro) demands cool water to grow, many farmers wanting to farm have inevitably failed as their crops rot in the fields due to warm water. The ‘o‘opu (goby fish), ‘opae (shrimp), and hihiwai (mollusks) are scarce if not found at all. The absence of water equals no food, intentional water banking has been the resulting cultural genocide. A&B has taken the word culture out of agriculture.

It was a far drive, arriving late, I duck into the meeting and get to hear the best part. Uncle Ed Wendt saying,

“I only want to hear positive, thatʻs it! Positive from here on out ….we have waited a long time for this…people listening now, we have help, all the help we need.”

Uncle Ed has been fighting for the return of diverted waters for his Wailua homeland for over 30 years. The number of meetings, letters, calls, hearings, lawyers, courtrooms, petitions, rallys and let downs has taken him to hair gray and knees tired, half dead, he says. His work and tireless attention has inspired area farmers to follow suit. His confidence today spoke volumes, a distinct different tone.

His wife Mahealani Wendt explained that some of the streams had water returned last year. While not as many as agreed and while many more are awaiting, it has been confirmed that some have been restored. There are 40 streams of subject conversation; the group is monitoring 24 of those. The Ho‘okano ‘ohana questioned if the few streams that have tributaries will be included, noting that in some places several streams turn into one. Uncle Ed affirmed this to be true, it includes the return to the tributaries as well and that not to be forgotten.

Na Moku Aupuni o Ko‘olau Hui optimistically awaits the decision from the State of Hawai‘i Commission on Water Resources Management (CWRM) on a petition that feverishly went round and round. The consensus of the final arguments hearing was that some of the commissioners were really engaged and asking substantive questions in a manner that had not been witnessed before. The answer from CWRM will be made in the near weeks ahead.

As the matter is in a holding pattern, next on the agenda was shoreline and marine management for the remote village of Ke‘anae and Wailua. The unanimous vote to move forward by modeling other successful community initiatives came quick. Two petitions are planned, one for area families and another for supporters.

As the meeting came to a close, kalo farmer and Na Moku board member shared some thoughts about the few streams that water had been returned due to the groups work,

“I just got to say, you know, what we are doing here, its working! When you go Hana, you see water!” Some (Hana residents) donʻt know what weʻve been working on, they donʻt know what it took, but when they pass, they say Wow! Get water!”, exclaimed Jerome Kekiwi Jr.

It was the first time I saw such a gleam from this guy. He has been one of the poster farmers through this fight with protest images on social media sporting a serious stink eye sometimes, for good reason. He has also opened his farm land up to new people concerned for his family and community; he has committed to being that school-without-walls farm and started to reconstruct school as we know it; he has partnered with Mauiʻs farming organizations and he has started a GoFundMe campaign to expand on his educational goals. Most importantly, he feeds his family healthy organic, gmo-free, farm fresh, heirloom kalo. He has made his community proud.

As I snapped a photo of the vigilant group I realized I didn’t need Photoshop, I just needed to hear one story of an empowered farmer. Kalo on Keanae! Kalo on!

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