Staring community-led preservation efforts in the face

By Shayne Hasegawa

Theory was put to practice recently when 26 graduate students from the University of Hawaii, Hawaii Pacific University and Clark University in Massachusetts got their feet wet and hands dirty as they toured community-led sustainability efforts on Oahu.

Students load rocksThe group visited He’eia Fishpond in Windward Oahu and several sites along the southern Ka Iwi coastline, including world-famous Hanauma Bay. But they experienced far more than the usual tourist would encounter.

The students were part of a four-day Center seminar, “Leadership and Community Partnerships: Toward Sustainable, Socially Just Development,” sponsored by the Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program.

While exploring community networking and social justice in Hawaii, the students shared social justice leadership experiences from their home countries (China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Russia, Thailand, and Vietnam) and probed how their own experiences connected with the seminar’s objectives.

But it wasn’t all theory.

After a day of plenary and break-out sessions, the students headed out early the next morning to Kaneohe on Oahu’s Windward side to meet the staff of the non-profit group, Paepae o He’eia, and to learn about a community effort to restore an ancient Hawaiian fishpond constructed over 600 years ago.

After formally asking permission to enter the fishpond, the students were greeted with a Hawaiian welcome chant by staff members, Hi’ilei Kawelo, Executive Director, Keli’i Kotubetey, ‘Aina Momona Coordinator, and Mehana Makainai, Fiscal Manager.

As they toured the fishpond wall, the students learned about the history of He’eia and how and why the fishpond was built:

The fishpond was part of the ahupua’a of He’eia, a Hawaiian form of sustainable land division. This wedge -shaped piece of land stretched from the mountains to the sea and emphasized the interconnectivity of all within its boundaries. And it was the community within this ahupua’a that built the fishpond for sustenance.

This community effort continues today as Paepae o He’eia, through grants from the land owner, Kamehameha Schools/Bishop Estate, and other sources, works with school and community groups to refurbish the fishpond wall and preserve the pond in support of cultural, educational and aquacultural programs.

Paepae o He’eia staff described the humble beginnings of the non-profit group, which originally started as a group of friends who got together after work and on weekends to restore the fishpond. They had all found a passion – preserving Hawaiian culture, helping the community – and a goal: restoring the fishpond.

Then came the best part: The students were invited to get involved in “hands-on” work in restoring the fishpond wall. A pile of rocks donated by a local company were enthusiastically loaded onto a utility vehicle and unloaded at a section of fishpond wall currently being rebuilt. By line, buckets, and individuals, the pile was quickly transported where it will await the next group of community volunteers.

The day ended with a scavenger hunt as the students divided into four groups and collected items related to the care of the fishpond. Items such as mangrove shoots (an invasive species whose roots can destroy the fishpond wall) and small samples of rock and coral used in the building of the wall and native plants (whose return was an unintended consequence of partially clearing the area of invasive species) were gathered as a way to bring home the lessons of the day.

The forth and final day of the seminar was spent touring the Ka Iwi Coastline on Oahu’s southeast shore, where the students learned how community efforts have led to protecting the area from over-development and over-use.

After a brief introduction at Hanauma Bay with Elizabeth Yacuk-Reilly, President and Founder, Livable Hawaii Kai Hui and Ann Marie Kirk, Native Hawaiian Cultural Specialist, Livable Hawaii Kai Hui, the group met at the Dave Matthews memorial bench at Sandy Beach. Dave Matthews, a strong proponent of protecting the Ka Iwi Coast, was a co-founder of the Save Sandy Beach Coalition (along with EWC’s Phil Estermann). He died in 2006 and the bench, which overlooks the beach, was dedicated in his memory.

In the mid-1980s, plans were underway to develop townhouses on two parcels of land across from Sandy Beach. But a grassroots movement, led by the Save Sandy Beach Coalition, pushed for and eventually got the City Council to rescind the land use approvals and rezone the land as “preservation.” After years of lawsuits and court battles, the city purchased the property.

A similar battle to preserve another portion of Ka Iwi Coast was fought by another community group, the Friends of Queen’s Beach. Since the 1970s, they had fought resort and condominium development in the open area known as Queen’s Beach and the land surrounding the Makapu’u Lighthouse. The state began condemnation proceedings in the late 1990s and eventually purchased the property.

To emphasize the need to preserve the beauty of this area, the students hiked the Makapu’u Lighthouse trail and took in the stunning views of the Ka Iwi Coast, and Windward Oahu. Along the way, Elizabeth and Ann Marie pointed out the areas that had been planned for development and how it would have changed the look and feel of the coastline. They also further discussed the challenges of the community’s preservation efforts and the need to continue their grassroots organizing and networking.

The group then returned to Hanauma Bay and met with Allen Hong, Director, Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve. Mr. Hong described how this spot, which was once a favorite of Hawaiian royalty, also became a favorite of both kamaaina and tourists, with up to 10,000 visitors a day, or about 3 million a year, at its peak in the 1980s.

After nearly becoming over-fished in the 1960s, the Bay was designated a Marine Life Conservation District (which prohibited fishing and the taking of marine resources) in 1967. As the fish started to repopulate the Bay, snorkeling and fish-feeding increased in popularity. This love of the Bay, however, put a strain on its resources and there were concerns that this over-use was damaging the reef and polluting the waters.

In the 1990s, the City, the University of Hawaii, and a community group, the Friends of Hanauma Bay, took steps to minimize the impact by reducing the number of visitors and by teaching conservation.

These restrictions and education programs have reduced the number of visitors to a more manageable 3,000 visitors a day.

In short, the efforts of the City and community have restored and preserved one of the state’s most pristine marine ecosystems while still keeping it one of the most visited beaches in the state.

In a wrap-up seminar lead by the students, the group agreed that education was a key to reducing poverty, corruption and environmental degradation. The students pledged to implement community networking in their home towns and countries, to:

1) Create more educational opportunities for children and minorities;
2) Stress the importance of education of parents;
3) Provide teachers with a “voice” in the educational curriculum and process;
4) Train local community leaders; and
5) Assist farmers.

In short, it was a lesson on what an empowered community can do to sustain its environmental and cultural heritage. Do you have a success story to share?

(To see more photos of the group’s experience at the fishpond and at the Ka Iwi coastline, go HERE)

2 thoughts on “Staring community-led preservation efforts in the face

  1. What a great account of an interesting activity that also helps build community. Great photos!

  2. Hi, I think this is a great experience, especially for students. Doing what they learn from the class about the community and make it into practise. I wonder if this program could be joined by other university as well. If you have such information, please kindly share. Would really appreciate that.

    Saut. Kyoto Univ Graduate Student.

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