Hawaiian Food Sovereignty: Ho'ea ea

As a transplant to Hawaii, I often wonder about the origins of the food I eat in my new home state. Comprising tiny specks of land amidst the vast Pacific, Hawaii has the most isolated population in the world. Yet, we import more than two-thirds of all the food we eat. The garlic I buy at the farmers market in Hilo may have come from somewhere north of town, or, more often, somewhere north of Shanghai. Even on the Big Island, whose arable acreage dwarfs all the other islands combined, I can normally count on only getting local macadamia nuts and papayas, even at the 'farmers' market. Although watermelon and tomatoes are both raised on-island, the ones from the Mainland are far cheaper. Subsidized oil and/or cheap labor make it profitable to ship in food grown in the rich and enviably deep soils of the Mainland and China. Thus, giant container ships, their holds laden with the bounty of California and Sichuan, deliver most of the food consumed in Hawaii. Should the barges stop coming though, Oahu, home to Honolulu and 98% of the State's population, only has enough food to last three days.

Precarious though this food supply system is, it has been difficult to imagine it changing. The Native Hawaiian agricultural practices that once supported a large population have eroded significantly, beginning with the arrival of Western colonizers and their missionaries. Many of the traditional ways were abandoned in favor of European and American cultural practices. Cattle were introduced, and the upland forests were decimated for their wealth of Sandalwood and ancient Koa. The missionaries encouraged their converts to plant non-native crops, which happened along with a forced abandonment of the traditional ahupua'a, the diverse triangular-shaped tracts of land stretching from the top of the mountain to the sea. By the turn of the twentieth century, there was already concern that the time-honored agricultural practices of Native Hawaiians were being entirely abandoned.

Yet the "old ways" did not disappear and interest in them, in fact, is growing. Earlier this year I attended a conference geared toward Hawaii's young people. The subject was ho'ea ea, or "food sovereignty." Organized by Professor Manu Meyer of the University of Hawaii at Hilo, the conference represents the new growth of an old tradition - namely, the local production or gathering of one hundred percent of the food consumed on-island.

The ho'ea ea movement is drawing deeply upon the knowledge kept alive by the elders who grew up in villages and valleys so isolated they escaped the influence of the missionaries and businessmen of the nineteenth century. The knowledge and traditions these elders hold can re-seed our understanding of native agricultural practices. They are a source of hope to a new generation of people interested in ho'ea ea.

The original Hawaiians traveled with all the seeds and seedlings they thought they would need in their new home. Traveling by ocean-worthy canoe, the first Hawaiians brought with them what we now know as "canoe" plants. Among them taro, sweet potato, and ti, are still grown commercially today. Coupled with modern understanding of water resource development and a reorganization of land use priorities, it is entirely possible that we on Hawaii Island could experience ho'ea ea. Two areas of great potential are the unused fresh water reserves on Hawaii Island, and the vast acreage currently devoted to producing very expensive beef on the Big Island.

Dependent as it has become on imported food, Hawaii is a canary in the global food-supply mine. As oil gets more expensive, every community will need to begin addressing its own food needs. Thanks to the leaders of the ho'ea ea movement, we are paying attention to the need for greater autonomy in feeding ourselves; thanks to the Island's elders, we have access to the traditional knowledge that will help us do so.

If you'd like to find out more about Ho'ea ea, go to http://handsturned.tripod.com or find a copy of Davianna Pomaika'i McGregor's book, Na Kua'aina: Living Hawaiian Culture, published by the Universtiy of Hawaii Press in Honolulu.

Back to the August 2007 Newsletter