“Aloha ‘Āina” was first published in Green Horizons.
Rising in the twilight hours, hearing only the birds call and ocean waves kissing the shore steadied my spirit. Only once before, when traveling to Haleakalā to greet the sun, have I felt this specific feeling deep in my na’au. I watched the shores of Ma’alaea harbor fade in the distance while salt water misted my face. I could feel in my soul my ancestors smiling as I embraced being surrounded by the wondrous life of the ocean that they respected and adored. Without stepping off the boat, I knew deep in my bones that I was about to jump into the world my kupuna so deeply cared for.
As we continued on, our boat finally rested at the center of a crescent shaped island and we geared up with snorkeling equipment. I was transported into the world below and so enraptured by the bright schools of fish among coral reefs — I almost forgot how to swim. When we returned to the boat, I was filled with a deep appreciation for the world I dove into. My dad, though, who was raised with “Maui Grandpa” in the 1980s, was disappointed. Decades prior, he explained, the area was filled with twice the amount of fish and lively coral reefs than when we visited. My amazement and wonder turned into a deep sense of longing for what was and grieving the loss of what could’ve been.
I latched onto that pain for motivation to protect the ‘āina and life that deserve more than what it’s gotten through the years. The connection comes from an indigenous relationship as Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) to be stewards to its needs. Beyond the reefs where dozens of boats unload tourists daily, awaits decades- old unexploded ordnance from World War II littering Molokini. A notorious legacy of United States imperialism that reminds us our struggles are far from over. With the looming darkness of climate catastrophe within the next decade, it’s long overdue for tourists to see Hawai’i as more than an escape from reality and to recognize the struggle to protect land bulldozed to make way for the tropical facade. We have an opportunity to preserve Molokini’s wonders of biodiversity before it’s sacrificed again for human safety.
Under United States occupation, the once thriving land is now suffocated by the military. Along with a history of environmental negligence, the US military is one of the largest contributors to climate change through immense CO2 emissions surpassing that of countries such as Peru and New Zealand.
One of the most painful cases of environmental destruction occurred during World War II when the islands of Kaho’olawe and Molokini were relentlessly used as a bombing range. Prior to this, Kahoolawe was mismanaged with goats and sheep overgrazing, accelerating soil erosion, resulting in a brief period as a Forest Reserve (1910–1918) with nonnative trees known as kiawe (Prosopis pallida) for revegetation.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, martial law declared the islands as “federal property” to be used as bombing practice for the military. This persisted until the 1990s. Above ground, Molokini resembled a submarine or battleship, but once the bombs landed below the surface, large amounts of black coral were destroyed. Operation Sailor’s Hat in 1965 was a series of 500- ton explosives that simulated a nuclear bomb creating a crater on Kaho’olawe that was more than 280-feet in diameter. First hand accounts of the impacts on coral and marine life from explosive ordinances on Molokini in the 1970s and 1980s were devastating, and caused irreparable damage. Robert Chambers, at the time owner of Hawaiian Pacific Divers of Maui, saw the destruction of biodiversity with his own eyes:
“I’ve dived in this blast area over the years and the bottom is pulverized coral, almost like talcum powder. No new coral larvae can attach to this, and so it remains in this state 30+ years later.”
The 1970s ushered in an era known as the Hawaiian Renaissance, that rekindled the aloha ‘āina movement. The overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom legally severed the connection to culture and land for generations, many of which could no longer speak their native language and had little knowledge of kanaka mana’o. Even colonization couldn’t strip Kanaka Maoli of their deep connection to the land, and the heart-wrenching feeling watching sacred islands bombed at the hands of foreign invaders reignited a nation.
Young activists formed the Protect Kaho’lawe ‘Ohana (PKO), and in 1976 more than 100 protesters departed from Ma’alaea Harbor to occupy the island. Although many boats were intercepted by the US Coast Guard, a group of nine were able to land safely on the island sparking national attention towards the movement of A.L.O.H.A. (Aboriginal Lands of Hawaiian Ancestry) to “Stop the Bombing” and end all military use of the island.
“It was a huge story. They would take on the whole federal government, the military, the Navy. Yikes. And the federal government and the Navy couldn’t do anything because they are willing to give up everything. They weren’t compromising. And that whole statement was revolutionary for everyone that wanted to see that there was some justice to the native people in their own homeland.” — Nainoa Thompson, President of the Polynesian Voyaging Society
During ongoing protest and occupation in 1977, George Helm and Kimo Mitchell disappeared off the shores of Kaho’olawe while trying to get aid through rough water. The loss of these young men tugged the heartstrings of environmentalists and activists alike, refusing to let their sacrifice to protect the islands be in vain. Victory came later that year as Molokini was designated as a Marine Life Conservation District along with the 77 acres of underwater terrain — and this was only the beginning.
In 1980, a lawsuit filed by PKO (Aluli et al. V. Brown [civil suit no. 76–0380]) reached a decision for the Navy to ‘survey and protect historic and cultural sites on the island, clear surface ordnance from 10,000 acres, continue soil conservation and revegetation programs, eradicate the goats from the island, limit ordnance impact training to the central third of the island, and allow monthly PKO accesses to the island’. After years of fighting for the environment, this was a step in the right direction and on October 22, 1990, President George Bush declared the islands to no longer be subject to military weaponry and the Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission (KIRC) was established to handle environmental preservation.
After 49 years, Kaho’olawe remains uninhabited due to toxicity in the soil and underwater, but environmental groups and cultural practitioners are permitted on the island. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found much of the island is barren hardpan with sediment-laden runoff affecting nearshore water quality, threatening the coral reef ecosystem. With the revegetation of native plants, this reduces the runoff and helps slowly restore marine life and the watersheds.
Molokini is now a Hawaii State Seabird Sanctuary and is home to nesting species such as Wedge-Tailed Shearwaters, and Bulwer’s Petrel. The World Wildlife Fund reports that nearly one-quarter of coral reefs worldwide are already damaged beyond repair, and the other two-thirds under serious threat. With the ocean temperature rising with CO2 emissions — thank you US military — nearly all coral reefs would experience annual bleaching by 2050. The balance of nature is under threat — we need to join together to protect what is left of our marine life and oceans.
In recent events, the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) notified boaters since November 2019 of the presence of two unexploded ordnance (UXO) around Molokini announcing to take action in the Spring of 2020.
“This process began more than six months ago, and no final decisions have been made and will not be made without public engagement. It’s important we hear from stakeholders.” — Suzanne Case, DLNR Chair
The Navy proposes to detonate the two UXO’s in an effort to minimize the harm to human health, sacrificing the marine life that’s taken years to restore. The islands are at the will of the US military forcing environmentalists, politicians, and activists to raise their voice to preserve the environment.
“To detonate them in place would be an utter disaster based on previous detonations there, they’ve just completely obliterated the reef.” — Alan Friedlander, University of Hawaii marine scientist and Director of the Fisheries Ecology Research Lab
The proposal of detonation caused an uproar with environmental agencies as this may violate EPA laws.
“NOAA Fisheries is aware of the proposal to remove munitions from the Molokini area, and we have advised the Navy EOD that they need to consult with NOAA on the effect of this action on federally protected species under the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and on Essential Fish Habitat, even when they are acting on an emergency request from the state.” — Jolene Lau, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association
Activists across the Hawaiian islands are organizing and raising awareness about the issue facing Molokini, and gained national attention as well. A petition with more than 26,433 signatures (as of 07/07/2020) is fighting for a more sound solution that protects the fragile biodiversity and coral reefs. With each stakeholder weighing in on the decision, it’s important now more than ever for solidarity between the people and their dedication to protecting the environment.
“I was proud to be guided by the kūpuna of the generation before us. Building upon the foundation laid by George Helm before he passed — it’s been 40 years of working as an extended family for Aloha ʻĀina throughout our islands — stopping the bombing of the island; healing the island; reviving the Makahiki ceremonies; opening access to our fishing grounds on Molokaʻi; protecting our iwi kūpuna at Honokahua, Maui; defending Pele from geothermal development; working for Ea, our own self-governance, through state, national and international pathways.” — Dr. Noa Emmett Aluli, a founder of the PKO.
Every aspect of nature across the islands Kanaka Maoli have a mo’olelo that gives reason and establishes a guide for how to interact with it. Oftentimes, it’s referred to as mythology lacking the basis of science or reasoning, but I implore you to ask yourself: Why is Hawaiian storytelling considered myth when it guided the people to thrive with the land for centuries? Do I truly understand the meaning of the story and how this influences the relationship to the land?
The misconception that Western knowledge is the only credible form of science is rooted in colonization discrediting indigenous storytelling that holds valuable ‘ike and mana’o.
I share with you one mo’olelo that explains Kanaka Maoli connection to ‘āina: the birth of Hāloa to Wākea and Hoʻohōkūkalani. Their first child, Hāloanakalaukapalili, was still born and after burying him, the first kalo plant sprouted from that spot. The second born was named Hāloa in honor of their first son, reminding us that our ancestors are the ‘āina. Just as kalo is a staple that provides for generations, we have a kuleana to tend to and respect the land as we would our elders.
Leaving Ma’alaea Harbor in the early hours of the morning, I understand that distinct feeling of aloha ‘āina is what the PKO that departed 40 years prior felt. The legacy of our ancestors lives on within us. Their dedication to preserving the life of the land runs through Kanaka Maoli, and are extended to settlers who are dedicated to preserving our culture by fostering that connection to the land within themselves. Although the full remediation of Kaho’olawe is a long road ahead, we have an opportunity to change the legacy of these islands.
There’s a chance to right the wrongs of the past and preserve the wonders that call Molokini home — this time choosing the environment.