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From the Mountain to the Sea: Saving the Heeia Ahupuaa

For Native Hawaiians, land was divided into ahupuaa, districts that encompassed mountain, farmland and sea, sharing natural resources to create self-sufficient communities. Today, three Native Hawaiian-led organizations and thousands of volunteers are at the forefront of efforts to restore an ahupuaa neighboring Kaneohe to its ancient functions—with lessons for the future.


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Harvesting taro is not for sissies. I am barefoot, thigh-deep in mud and, as instructed by Rick Barboza, one of the directors of the nonprofit educational organization Papahana Kuaola, I am exploring the tough root structures with my feet in order to liberate the corms with my toes. After about half an hour, I take my three hard-won roots and walk the few steps to Heeia Stream with visiting students from the John A. Burns School of Medicine Center for Native Hawaiian Excellence, to wash the taro.


It’s good, hard work, but it doesn’t compare to the effort it took to get the taro planted here. A decade ago, the acreage that now houses Papahana Kuaola and its for-profit sister organization, the native plant nursery Hui Ku Maoli Ola, was, among other things, an unofficial garbage dump, says Barboza. It took years of cleanup, excavation, restoration work and a grant from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association to make it what it is today: an educational site with cleared outdoor classrooms, an imu pit for celebrations, a contemporary heiau, a shelter for rainy days, the loi themselves, and the stream, planted with native species and canoe plants (so called because early Polynesian settlers brought them here by canoe), with a footpath alongside much of its length.


Barboza and his partners at Papahana know there is a public hunger to experience what I just did—to pull food out of the earth, to have a relationship with the land that is not just looking, and a relationship with food that is not just unwrapping and consuming.


Rick Barboza, one of the directors of educational nonprofit Papahana Kuaola, stands in a loi of the Heeia Ahupuaa.

“We had 28,000 people come through last year,” Barboza tells me. They come from schools, private groups and corporations—at Kaiser Permanente’s recent workday, 600 people showed up to Papahana Kuaola and the Heeia Fishpond, down the valley. They come, like I did, to gain experience and to give back a little bit of labor. Workday by workday, at projects and organizations that run from the mountains to the sea, they are helping to restore an entire ahupuaa: Heeia.


Heeia Ahupuaa, just north of Kaneohe town, has always been a place where two worlds converge. In precontact times, it was divided into Heeia Kea and Heeia Uli (White and Dark Heeia), places from which it was said judged souls leaped into their respective afterlives. Today, Heeia still faces two ways: it is here that town turns into country, and here that ancient ecosystems and ways of managing resources are finding contemporary life.


Many organizations and stakeholders are helping to monitor, maintain or restore parts of the ahupuaa, from schools to government agencies to Kamehameha Schools, a major landowner in the area. But, as I talk to people about restoration in the region, three names keep coming up. Each of these organizations cares for a different part of the ahupuaa, from the mountains to the sea:  Papahana Kuaola in the inner valley, helmed by Rick Barboza and Matthew Kapaliku Schirman; Kakoo Oiwi at the vast Heeia wetlands, with Kanekoa Kukea-Shultz as its executive director; and Paepae o Heeia at Heeia Fishpond, led by Hiilei Kawelo. Though they all operate independently of one another, they share a vision: to create and sustain what Kawelo calls “a full-on, living, breathing ahupuaa.”


The Upper Stream: Papahana Kuaola and Hui Ku Maoli Ola


An ahupuaa lives and dies by its fresh water, and much of Heeia’s begins its journey behind Papahana Kuaola. When I visit, on a rainy morning, I count fourteen waterfalls cascading down the magnificent cliffs of Iolekaa Valley. That’s nothing, says Rick Barboza, coming out to greet me. “Sometimes there are up to 40.”


I’d spent my taro-picking workday admiring the progress that has been made on this 77-acre patch of ground, but now Barboza outlines how far there is to go. He points out a prominent red-dirt scar on the cliffside. “That wasn’t there when we got here” seven years ago, says Barboza. The patch of erosion is the gradual product of heavy rains, combined with a patch of an invasive, recently introduced plant whose root systems are too shallow for the soil type. When they get the chance, Barboza and his staff clear invasives and replace them with natives where possible, using plants propagated from nearby so the area can preserve its genetic integrity.


“Yeah, we’re the native plant guys,” he laughs. Barboza’s passion is restoring native ecosystems—not just the plants, but the birds and insects who feed off them and use them for habitat, and the native fish who can reside in restored streams. With many successful stream restoration projects behind him, Barboza is also caring for the one that runs through his own patch of ground, planting its banks with natives that help control erosion. “The stream is the physical indicator of the health of this ahupuaa,” says Barboza. Today, despite the heavy rains, Heeia Stream flows clear and clean: a good sign.


An ahupuaas traditional purpose is food production, so, in addition to native plants, there are the loi kalo (taro patches) I’d helped harvest, planted with a grant from NOAA meant to aid coastal zone management. Barboza and his partners are planting other Hawaiian staples, too: “sweet potato, taro, eventually more breadfruit.” But the 77-acre site, spacious as it is, is partly vertical, and much of the rest is covered with native plant nurseries. Barboza points downslope. “Kakoo [Oiwi], they have way more acreage. And the protein side of it, that’s where the fishpond comes in.”


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