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From the Mountain to the Sea: Saving the Heeia Ahupuaa


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The Wetlands: Ka-koo o-iwi

Mahi La Pierre, Kupualau education and programs leader at Papahana Kuaola, says drinking from ka puna (the spring) is a spiritual act. Before partaking, you should first honor your ancestors, and then the aina, before drinking yourself.

After leaving Papahana’s idyllic grounds, Heeia Stream passes through a residential area and then spreads out into hundreds of acres of marshland and floodplain, an ancient taro-growing district originally called Hoi. Over the years, taro gave way to successive waves of sugar cane, pineapple, rice and cattle pasturing, which sent fertilizers, pesticides and other pollutants downstream into the fishpond and the bay. Mangrove, introduced inland to control erosion, spread down the estuary, eventually choking it and overtaking the neighboring Heeia Fishpond.

In January, 2010, the nonprofit group Kakoo Oiwi signed a 38-year lease with the Hawaii Community Development Authority (HCDA) for the management of 400 acres of the Heeia Wetlands. The project Mahuahua Ai o Hoi (Regrowing the Fruit of Hoi) was begun, with the primary purposes of producing Hawaiian staple foods and returning the area to a state of cultural and ecological health.

It is the youngest of Heeia’s major restoration efforts, but already its sheer scale is impressive. Kanekoa Kukea-Shultz, Kakoo’s executive director, pulls out an ambitious master plan for the site that includes a community cultural center, heiau restoration, inland fishponds, forest and wetland restoration, a commercial poi mill and 180 acres set aside for the growing of taro, which would increase statewide taro production by a third. Controlled growth, and the continued expansion of the taro market—the increasing popularity of locally grown food and pounding your own poi means that demand for suitable taro grown on Oahu already far exceeds supply—are key to Kakoo’s vision of success. When I ask what that success might look like, Shultz shows me an old black-and-white photograph of the region. The lo‘i seem to stretch for miles, beautifully planted, with acres of calm water reflecting the sky.

For Shultz, as director of a cultural nonprofit, that picture is all about food and community: lots of it, grown for the local community, particularly kupuna, a council of whom are guiding the fledgling nonprofit. “One of the highlights of Heeia ahupuaa is the active kupuna that are here,” he tells me. Their involvement means that the project is a restoration rather than a resurrection: “These kupuna remember how it was when they were growing up, 80 years ago. We don’t have to read a book; we have their stories and experience. The knowledge is not lost. It’s right here.”

Shultz is also a biologist and Kaneohe site manager for the Nature Conservancy, and, like the scientist he is, he sees the restoration of the Heeia wetlands as an opportunity to mitigate some of the effects of climate change we’re already seeing, such as frequent flooding and shrinking aquifers. Like the loi kalo upstream at Papahana Kuaola, but on a much larger scale, the loi of Hoi will serve as “sediment retention basins,” slowing down raging, muddy floodwaters and keeping water and sediment on the land instead of in the bay.

When he does the math, it sounds even more dramatic. For every acre of high-sided loi that traps an additional six inches of water during a flood event, “that’s 140,000 gallons, held on our land, that’s not flooding out to the fishpond and onto the reefs.” Multiply that by 180 or more, and that’s 25 million gallons of water and sediment being held back with every large flood.  Says Shultz, “We’re using traditional Hawaiian agriculture—traditional ecological knowledge—to provide an ecosystem service.”

Today, Shultz’s staff is busy making laulau from just-harvested taro. We walk out onto cleared loi, recently completed and planted. Three years ago, this patch of ground was choked with mangrove and other invasives. As we watch, a little family of endangered Hawaiian stilts (aeo) stalks about contentedly in the open stretches of mud, their favorite habitat.

Shultz, like Barboza, is also keenly aware of the effect his actions will have downstream. Looking toward Heeia Fishpond, across the street, he says, “We are literally a stone’s throw away from them. What we do really affects what Hiilei does.”

Ahupuaa: Land division usually extending from the uplands to the sea, so called because the boundary was marked by a heap (ahu) of stones surmounted by an image of a pig (puaa), or because a pig or other tribute was laid on the altar as tax to the chief. (From the online Hawaiian Dictionary, wehewehe.org)

In precontact Hawaii, ahupuaa were part of a system of governance that ensured each community had access to the land and ocean resources it needed to be self-sustaining.

The ahupuaa is making a modern-day comeback. In 2007, the Department of Transportation and the Koolaupoko Hawaiian Civic Club joined forces to create the Koolaupoko Ahupuaa Boundary Marker Project. The project reminds Hawaii’s modern-day residents that, though we may live in a ZIP code and at a numbered address, we also live in an ahupuaa, which comes with a kuleana. “The people who live and work in an ahupuaa are responsible for caring for the resources in it, natural and cultural,” says Mahealani Cypher, the civic club’s president. “We noticed that people often didn't know which ahupuaa they lived in, and we felt that we needed a foundation, not only to identify where you live, but to connect people with their responsibility.”

The first sign went up on the Windward Side in 2011. Reaction was so positive that the project has gone islandwide. Now you can see the signs from Kualoa to Waimanalo, and all along the Waianae coast. Honolulu’s first ahupuaa boundary marker went up on Ala Moana Boulevard in October of last year.

The Fishpond

The waters of Heeia Stream make one last stop before reaching the sea: Much of it is diverted into Heeia Fishpond to create the brackish waters ideal for attracting young reef fish.

Founded in 2001, Paepae o Heeia, whose mission is to care for Heeia Fishpond and share the traditional knowledge it can provide with the community, is the oldest of Heeia ahupuaa’s major active restoration projects. When Hiilei Kawelo, Paepae’s executive director, first encountered the fishpond in the mid-1990s, it had been a relic for decades; polluted runoff, neglect and, finally, a devastating 1965 flood that swept away a 200-foot section of wall, had all taken their toll. Mangroves entered through the breach and, before long, the pond was the 88-acre mangrove swamp many of us remember from our childhoods. Though there were smaller, sporadic efforts to maintain the fishpond, “restoration wasn’t really something that was going on,” says Kawelo.

When Kawelo and a group of other young Hawaiians joined together to form Paepae o Heeia, she knew they were not going to be able to restore the pond alone. Hundreds or thousands of hands had originally worked together to build the fishpond wall, and that many were going to be needed again. Says Kawelo, “We saw a void—a lack of community involvement. But when you open something up to the community, you can get a lot of stuff done.”

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