Once Ancient, Now Modern

Old Hawaii’s Sustainable Practices Inspire a New Approach to Living on the Big Island

In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the Hawaiian Archipelago lies thousands of miles from any major continent. These eight volcanic islands form the most remote and beautiful island chain on earth. Settled by seafaring voyagers who brought all they needed to thrive in the hulls of their canoes, these islands were once totally self-sufficient. In modern times Hawaii has become dangerously dependent with massive food imports and a heavy reliance on fossil fuels. As the global environmental situation becomes more serious, some people in Hawaii are looking to the past for inspiration for rebuilding a more sustainable future.

Ancient Hawaii and Sustainable Living

For centuries, ancient Hawaiians lived in harmony with their natural environment, managing land and natural resources by way of the Kapu and Ahupua’a system. Each island was split into a series of districts (moku), which were then sectioned into Ahupua’a — slices of land running from the mountains to the sea (mauka to makai). A strict code of Kapu (laws) governed the use of natural resources, from fishing to what foods could and could not be consumed. A prison-less society, those that broke the laws were punished by death, or, if they could out-run the hand of justice to the nearest Pu’uhonua (place of refuge) they could be blessed by a priest and return to their community.

Compared to other ancient civilizations that existed thousands of years ago, ancient Hawaii is not so ancient. Captain James Cook, the first westerner to set foot on the Big Island of Hawaii at Kealakekua Bay, arrived in 1779, less than 250 years ago. (He first visited the island of Kauai in 1778). At the time of Cook’s arrival, the Hawaiian Islands supported a robust population of several hundred thousand people or more — all subsisting on resources from the islands and the waters surrounding them. Fishing, farming, hunting, and gathering were the only alternatives. To this day, the remnants of fishponds and other organized food production systems can be seen across the islands.

Present Day Energy Dependence and Food Insecurity

In the roughly two centuries since western colonization and modernization of the Hawaiian Islands, much has changed. For instance, on the Big Island, locals in their 30s and 40s have living grandparents who recall getting around by horseback on dirt trails and fishing for their dinner. Today, their grandchildren drive cars navigated by smartphones and purchase food flown on ice from thousands of miles away.

It is estimated that Hawaii imports as much as 90% of its food, with large quantities of produce coming from California and Mexico that could be grown year-round in the islands. Dependent on fossil fuels for transport over thousands of miles, food is a major area that illustrates just how unsustainable modern lifestyles have become. Located over 2,500 miles from the US Mainland, Hawaii is especially vulnerable to spikes in fuel prices and transportation breakdowns that could leave the islands without food.

A growing number of people in Hawaii are looking to the past to find solutions to the present-day environmental crisis, adopting the attitude that “what was once ancient is now modern.” According to Honolulu Civil Beat, in 2012, Act 288 established the Aha Moku Advisory Committee within the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources. The committee is modeled after the Aha Kiole, ancient councils of Hawaii consisting of elders who addressed place-based resource management issues.

Across the islands, grass-roots efforts by residents and businesses to push for a more sustainable Hawaii are ramping up. From a resurgence in local arts and crafts, to a growing number of small farmers, locally derived value added products, and farm to table restaurant initiatives, there is much energy around ‘buying local’ and the sustainable principles behind it. Many are recognizing that it’s not simply what products you buy, and what businesses you do or do not support, but an entire way of living that is up for re-definition and adaptation. An example of this shift can be seen on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Laupahoehoe Point, Big Island Hawaii.

Kuwili Lani – Building a Sustainable Community

On the Big Island’s Hamakua Coast, there is a unique flagship sustainable community in the making. Kuwili Lani, meaning “to embrace the heavens”, is the first of its kind fossil fuel-free, sustainable, intentional community in the Hawaiian Islands. Set on a total of 13.9 acres and subdivided into 11 just over one-acre parcels, Kuwili Lani offers environmentally minded folks a chance to buy-in and build their own dream green home in Laupahoehoe, Hawaii. Spearheading this project is Michael Whelan, Co-founder of Big Island Sustainable Homes, LLP. Passionate about sustainability and education, Whelan offers consulting on sustainable building practices, serving as a liaison between Kuwili Lani community members and local professionals who can provide water catchment, solar energy installation, and insight into tropical agriculture and farming in Hawaii.

“The main intention behind Kuwili Lani is to create a path for people to follow to obtain a self- sufficient, sustainable lifestyle. We want to consciously empower individuals to be a part of the solution and no longer a drain on our precious planet’s ability to provide for us,” says Whelan.

In addition to the private sector, it’s a trend that’s receiving more attention and advocacy at the government level as well.  One such proponent is State Senator Lorraine Inouye who recently visited Kuwili Lani to gain some insight and get a look at the innovative project.

Senator Inouye visits Kuwili Lani.

The agriculture aspect of Kuwili Lani setting the bar as a model for Hawaii developers is especially appealing to Inouye. She has worked to support a variety of Ag initiatives in her district and is also a farmer with her husband. Whelan is optimistic Kuwili Lani will become the norm rather than the exception in the next decade, as is Inouye.  “I see Kuwili Lani as an example for other developers in the State,” she says.  “For me it is finding ways in which I can encourage more of these forward-looking developments and create incentives from the public sector to get developers and residents on board.”

Located in Laupahoehoe on the eastern slope of Mauna Kea overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Kuwili Lani offers prime conditions for living a more sustainable lifestyle in a beautiful island setting. At 500 ft. – 1,000 ft. elevation, natural sun and cooling trade winds provide a pleasant microclimate. Laupahoehoe is beloved by farmers for its ideal growing conditions, with around 75 inches of rainfall annually, rich volcanic soil, and temperatures ranging from 70 – 82 degrees Fahrenheit year-round.

Only 35 minutes north of Hilo, the island’s main population and government center, Laupahoehoe has a country, old Hawaii feel while not being too isolated or remote. Its orientation is ideal for people who want to unplug and live a more natural lifestyle, yet remain close to a major town for medical care, work, or school. The Laupahoehoe community, as well as the other surrounding communities of Hakalau, Honomu, and to the north, Honokaa, are small and close knit.

Historically, this area has been a center for farming, ranching, and sugar plantations. Today, the Hamakua Coast is becoming known increasingly as an ecotourism destination, with many breathtaking waterfalls like Akaka Falls and Umauma Falls, and farming operations offering farm-to-table products and tours. One notable commercial farm in Laupahoehoe is the Hamakua Heritage Farm, specializing in gourmet mushrooms. The vibrant and entrepreneurial farming community comes out in force to the Hamakua Harvest Market on Sundays. On Saturdays, farmers’ markets in Waimea to the north, or Hilo to the south draw many farmers, craft, and food vendors from around the island.

Akaka Falls State Park.

In addition to being an agricultural center, Hamakua has many ongoing conservation and restoration projects. The lush forest of this region is home to rare bird and plant species like the ‘Apapane and the ‘Ōhi‘a Tree. The Hilo Forest Reserve, Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge, Manowaialee Forest Reserve, Hamakua Forest Reserve, and Pu’u Mali Restoration Area are all located in the Hamakua region surrounding the Kuwili Lani community.

As the largest and least developed of the Hawaii Islands, the Big Island has arguably the greatest potential for the development of sustainable communities like Kuwili Lani. A rural island with a history of farming and ranching, there is a strong DIY culture and wealth of knowledge to be shared — you just have to ask.