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.
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.
“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 Heeia ahupuaa from the wall of Heeia Fishpond. The ahupuaa encompasses two valleys—on the left, Haiku Valley, where the H-3 emerges from the Koolau Mountains, and to its right, Iolekaa (Rolling Rat) Valley—as well as the flat wetlands, the fishpond itself, and part of Kaneohe Bay itself.
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.”
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: THEN AND NOW
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 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.”
Community workdays and constant labor from Paepae’s staff have clawed the mangroves out of the silt and built up the wall again, stone by stone. Today, the pond is an open expanse of water, nearly half the encircling 1.3-mile-long wall has been restored and the organization is waiting for approval to close up the breach made in 1965. A native succulent, akulikuli, has seeded itself along the pond’s borders and flourishes today, bright green against the white coral and black lava. Within the pond you’ll find all the fishes of the reef. It’s not yet producing the 175 to 275 pounds of fish per acre per year that fishponds did at the turn of the century, but Kawelo is in it for the long haul.
As we walk along the repaired wall at low tide, she talks about why the restoration of the pond, and the ahupuaa at large, is important: “You can go to Bishop Museum and get stuff that’s about as old as the fishpond, 800 years. You can see it, but it’s in a glass case. You can’t touch it. Here, it’s 800 years old, and you can see it, you can walk on it, you can change it. It can evolve. You can learn. That’s what it means to be Hawaiian and to be practicing. Cultures and tradition and practice are a response to your environment, and of course your environment is ever-changing. The composition of people and the composition of community is always changing. What doesn’t change is that this is my home. And no matter what condition it’s in, it’s still my kuleana to make a difference.”
AN ALTERNATE HISTORY
The battle for Heeia’s restoration didn’t start with this generation. The ahupuaa could have had a very different fate: It was once slated to become the heart of Oahu’s second city. Rev. Bob Nakata, former state representative and current pastor at Kahaluu United Methodist Church, recalls that, after World War II, “development on Oahu went crazy in all directions.” Nakata came home from seminary training on the Mainland in 1972 to find evictions in progress and plans afoot to dredge the wetlands and then-overgrown fishpond and replace them and the current pier with a massive boat harbor. Resorts, major oil refineries, a huge sewage plant and thousands of residential units were all in the cards for the surrounding area.
Nakata helped organize groups such as the Kahaluu Coalition and Hui Malama Aina o Koolau into a grassroots resistance effort that extended all the way up the coast to Waiahole/Waikane. Eventually, development went to the competing “second-city” site on the Ewa plain, which has been the focus of Oahu’s urban growth ever since. By contrast, the area north of Kaneohe became known as a place you shouldn’t do business without community consent, a reputation that has protected it.
Nakata loves to hear about what’s happening in Heeia now. “I feel really good about the restorations that are going on,” he says. “It’s amazing. Because 30, 40 years ago, when we started, these are the things we talked about! Restoring the fishpond. We activists talked about it, and now the present-day activists are making it happen.”
The Bay: Traditional Knowledge and Contemporary Science
The waters of Heeia empty, finally, into Kaneohe Bay, one of the largest bays in the Hawaiian Islands. Jo-Ann Leong, director of the University of Hawaii Institute for Marine Biology (HIMB)—headquartered on Coconut Island, within Heeia ahupuaa—tells me that Kaneohe Bay wasn’t always muddy. Over the past 80 years, onshore development, sediment runoff and the changed current flows resulting from dredging have transformed the bay’s ecosystem. The bay floor, once largely white sand and healthy coral, has become mired in sediment and choked with invasive plants and algae. “Can we get it back to what it once was? I don’t know. But should we try?” Her eyes twinkle. “Hell, yes!”
Along with HIMB, the Nature Conservancy is just one of a number of organizations that are working together to restore the bay. Part of the cleanup includes removing several species of aggressive alien algae that form thick mats and smother the coral reefs on which native marine life depends. The Conservancy operates one of two “Super Suckers,” modified gold dredgers that can suck 40 pounds of algae off the reef every minute.
To keep the aggressive plants from growing back, the state is raising a native species of collector sea urchin that loves to eat the invasive algae. Initial tests with the urchins have been extremely successful; after six months, a test patch of cleared reef seeded with urchins remained clear, while the control patch (cleared but with no urchin intervention) was more than 35 percent re-smothered. Much of the “supersucked” algae gets trucked across the street to Kakoo Oiwi, where Shultz and others are experimenting with turning the invasive weeds into mulch to nourish the fields.
Leong adds that “traditional ecological knowledge”—the kind possessed by kupuna who knew the ecology of the bay before changes took hold—is proving crucial to a scientific understanding of the area’s natural baseline. HIMB and one such kupuna, Jerry Kaluhiwa, are partnering on a historical ecological benthic (or sea floor) map of limu (seaweed) in the bay as it once was: “Uncle Jerry knows about it. We [at HIMB] are only learning about it now.”
A Sentinel Site: All Eyes on Heeia
Heeia’s intricate web of community relationships and partnerships, which reaches across organizations, philosophies and types of knowledge, has attracted national attention. Last year, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association named Heeia a NOAA Sentinel Site, one of eight locations around the nation where climate change and possible climate-change mitigation will be intensively studied. Heeia’s status as a Sentinel Site will help attract grants and resources, and NOAA can help coordinate the many different organizations and actors in the ahupuaa.
When Kristina Kekuewa, acting director of NOAA Pacific Coastal Services, gets official visitors from Washington, D.C., she likes to take them out to Heeia to see it for themselves: “Bullet points are great when you’re trying to explain what the program is, but when you take them to the site and they see it, people are just amazed. They understand why we work so hard at it.”
So far, Heeia ahupuaa is the only Sentinel Site where “past management and past practices” are being explored as part of the solution for contemporary site management, says Kekuewa. But the question precontact Hawaiians asked of their islands—How can we live in a fragile, finite place in a sustainable and renewable way?—is the question the world is now asking itself. Long before we conceived of ourselves as a lonely planet, traditional cultures knew: “He waa, he moku; he moku, he waa.” The canoe is an island; the island is a canoe.
THE UPPER STREAM →
THE WETLANDS →
THE FISHPOND →
Illustration: dana paresa
The Upper Stream: Papahana Kuaola and Hui Ku Maoli Ola
In the upper regions of Haiku Stream, a genetic taro bank spread across 57 small loi thrives, while volunteers take workshops on traditional practices like stone-laying.
The Wetlands: Kakoo Oiwi
Kanekoa Kukea-Shultz (second from right) leads this nonprofit’s quest to reclaim the 405 acres of invaded wetland for food-growing and native plants. Digging auwai (irrigation ditches) and creating loi (sunken fields) are first steps.
The Fishpond: Paepae O Heeia and Kaneohe Bay
Director Hiilei Kawelo (far right) oversees the tons of quarried coral that are loaded onto pontoons and hauled to their final destination as part of the fishpond’s ongoing wall restoration.
Volunteers haul heavy coral blocks into place at Paepae o Heeia.
Tours and workdays are great ways to learn and help your own ahupuaa thrive. For workdays, bring covered shoes, and prepare for mud, sun, bugs—and fun.
Among the excellent cultural tours that have been offered by the Koolaupoko Hawaiian Civic Association are a glass bottom boat tour of Kaneohe Bay, and a walking tour of Moku o Loe (Coconut Island), both part of the ahupuaa of Heeia. Guests provide their own transportation and picnic lunch. koolaupokohcc.org
Papahana Kuaola hosts a community workday from 8 to 11 a.m. on the third Saturday of each month, focusing either on stream restoration or taro-patch maintenance. Every other month, there’s a lunch and workshop afterward. papahanakuaola.com
Paepae O Heeia has community workdays at the fishpond from 8:30 a.m. to noon. During summer, they will be on June 8, July 13 and August 10. Lunch is provided. Attendance is limited to 60; call ahead to reserve a spot and get directions. paepaeoheeia.org
Kakoo Oiwi holds community workdays on the second Saturday of each month, building auwai and loi, teaching traditional planting methods and clearing invasives. Lunch is provided; visit the website for details and directions. kakoooiwi.org