The Growing Abundance of Moloka`i

Several, all but empty, gift shops line the main drag here in the small town of Kaunakakai, Moloka`i. Two meager grocers dominate the square’s activity. On the edge of town, which is really only about a block wide, there sits a quant old natural food store that reminds me of more than one ol’ town co-op on the mainland.

A doddering old codger directs me around the store and points out all the things grown on the island without every having to leave his seat behind the counter.

“This is the stuff Robin brought by yesterday” he explains to another customer, pointing to a box of produce just over the counter from where he sat.

Robin, that’s who I’m supposed to meet up with later. She’s coming into town to meet me discuss possible camping accommodations. What are the chances this store clerk is talking about the same Robin you ask? Well, on Moloka`i, as I would soon find out, the chances are pretty darn good.

The overhead view

Touching down at the small airport I started to question my motives for coming to this island. Was I really going to find the answers to all the questions I had or was this going to be an adventure in lost time?

The island wasn’t really much to look at from above. Roads and fences partitioned open agricultural plots and pastures. The earth, exposed and denuded, seemed to imbue every visible car and building with it’s ruddy pigment. This depressing sight did not give promise to what I hoped to find here.

I was picked up at the airport by Emillia Noordoek, Sust `aina ble Moloka`i‘s Executive Director. According to their mission statement, Sust `aina ble Moloka`i works to “restore the island’s legacy of ‘aina momona’ (abundant land) creating a sustainable future that integrates traditional knowledge and cultural pathways with compatible, modern sustainable strategies”.

As we drifted through the lonely street from the airport toward town I engaged Emillia in questions regarding the island’s history and what led to the current state of malady I observed from above.

“Like everywhere else, people got on the train of ‘modern agriculture'” she explains, “high input, intensive monocultures that wreck the land …now we’re just trying to find our way back.”

Emillia explained the current projects they’re working on such as trying to revive the schools struggling agriculture program and build curriculums that teach elementary students the fundamentals of sustainability. She also tells me of how they are contending with other issues such as the need for worthwhile employment.

“We are going up against one of the island’s largest employer, Monsanto.”

As it turns out, much of the land on Moloka`i that had previously been used for pineapple production is now being leased to Monsanto (some 1,650 acres) for a 99 year term. It should come as no surprise that the most isolated islands in the world are a prime target for genetic experimentation.

Island solidarity

When we arrived in town Emillia dropped me by Kalele Bookstore where I was welcomed by Teri Waros. Teri, an inviting and friendly woman with an unabating smile, welcomed me in and offered me a liliko`i (a fruit I was quickly becoming addicted to during my time on the islands) as she helped me to make arrangements for my evenings stay.

“I’ll call Robin and see if they will be swinging into town today,” she volunteered. “Why don’t you set your bags down out back and explore the town a bit. There’s a natural foods store across the street in case you need anything.”

As it turned out, Robin was on her way into town and offered to take me back to the farm after she finished her errands. In the mean time, Teri was setting up for a movie viewing that would prove to  completely alter my understanding of island life.

Gathering in the Kalele Bookstore, the community of Moloka`i had come out to hear story of their sister island peoples to the North. The Unangan peoples, much like the native people of Hawai`i, lived an isolated island life for many years sustaining off the abundance of their islands and the vast Pacific Ocean.

The ongoing plights of these two island cultures, although differing in many ways, is painfully linked. Generations worth of exploitation, slavery, cultural suppression and even genocide still haunt them.

During the course of the film, and subsequent discussion, I found myself in awe of the strength and resilience of these two island cultures. Through so much adversity, they still find a way to persevere and work to revive the way of life that their ancestors knew.

Restoring ‘aina momona’

No one seems to exemplify this more fluently than Malia Akutagawa. Malia, a marie biologist and environmental lawyer, and her work with the Permaculture Research Institute, was my main motivation for detouring to this obscure island. Already, before even having the opportunity to spend much time with her, I was discovering that the island had much more in store for me than I ever could have expected.After an inspiring evening at Kalele Bookstore, I awoke in the trees surrounded by a forest of food. Out of the screened windows of my one room bungalow there hung a profound cornucopia of fruit. Mango, avocado, starfruit, papaya, acerola, to name just a few that could be seen from that vantage.I had awoken on Robin and Dano Gorsich’s Permafarm located in a remote hideaway on the East end of Moloka`i. This amazing site was a small example of the vast potential the island held for food production. On 9/10ths of an acre, Robin and Dano supported themselves and managed to raise and put their four daughters through college.The Permafarm is special in many ways… most notably in its location. Being in the Waialua Valley on the windward side of the island, the Permafarm is nestled in the heart of Moloka`i’s rainforest with a still unsullied stream. But over 2/3rds of the island are desert and that desert has been growing.President and founder of Sust`aina`ble Moloka`i, Malia Akutagawa has worked on a huge variety projects to reverse the desertification of her island including a permaculture initiative designed to create a network of local teachers to mentor youth and manage large earth repair projects.

I met up with Malia later that morning and she told me more about her current goal to initiate an ahupua`a restoration project. Extending from mauka (the mountain) to makai (the ocean), this restoration project would serve as an example of responsible land management for all of Hawaii and, as my experience the previous night had shown, be an inspiration far beyond any single chain of islands.

Malia drove me around the island and showed me several sites that her community has been working on including several fishponds and the location of the earthworks course put on by Geoff Lawton in December of 2010.

As we explored these various sites around the island Malia explained to me how the picture of health and sustainability on Moloka`i has been skewed. Much of the statistics used to describe things like employment rates and poverty rates fails to account for the people who are still subsisting off the abundance of their natural environment.

In a subsistence study in 1993, Malia helped to co-ordinate the collection of data that found a significant amount (38%) of all the native peoples diet on the island was provided by subsistence activities such as fishing, hunting and foraging. This clearly illustrates the importance of the aina in the native hawaiian way of life.

Bits and pieces

All together I had a very inspiring few days on Moloka`i. What I’ve been able to write about here is only a small glimpse at the beautiful impression this island and her people have left on me. It’s not everyday that I have the opportunity to explore a world so foreign and yet so close to my heart!

I wish the people of Moloka`i well in their struggles to maintain the sacred wonders that have been bestowed upon their small island. One day I hope to return to the island and contribute the restoration of  momona!

A deep mahalo to Malia Akutagawa, Robin and Dano Gorsich, Emillia Noordoek, Teri Waros and all of the aina ohana for all the love and aloha!

After departing from the islands I have finally arrived at Zaytuna Farm, the home of the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia. Over the course of the next ten weeks I will participate in an intensive permaculture internship that covers all aspects of cultivating abundance in any landscape.

In January I will head to Thailand to help assist in the creation of a new permaculture farm in the central Thai town of Korat.

I hope that you will join me for these and many other exciting adventures ahead in my quest to cultivate abundance the world over!

2 thoughts on “The Growing Abundance of Moloka`i

  1. I can't even cry about the devastation that Monsanto is causing worldwide. Kudos to every soul who participates in a restoration project to bring back natural diversity and heal the lands that have been harmed by the ignorance and greed of man. If only we had always lived tribal and maintained the fragile balance of our ecosystems and habitats, we could have evolved so much more alongside our brothers and sisters of life (plants and other creatures).

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