Hawaii & Alaska
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HI - Could Hawaii's ancient land management system show the way to feed the world

The ahupua'a system of land development, in practice for more than 1,000 years, has the potential to show the world a new path to sustainability.

Walking the paths of Limahuli Garden & Preserve, my jacket soaked through by the steady rain characteristic of Kauai's lush north shore, I bent over placards introducing Pritchardia limahuliensis, a native fan palm endemic only to this Hawaiian valley, and breathed in the sweet scent of the white hibiscus koki'o ke'oke'o, once thought extinct.

But while I came to Limahuli eager to see rarities like these preserved in this 17-acre National Tropical Botanical Garden, I was soon captivated by something even more fascinating: intricate layers of ancient rock-walled terraces that climbed the valley and vanished into the dense highland forests above. Shown by carbon dating to be more than 1,000 years old, they are part of an ancient ahupua'a, a sophisticated land-management and food-production system that once allowed Hawaii's isolated and densely populated pre-contact communities to be entirely self-sufficient.

Pre-contact, Kauai had more than 50 ahupua'a, with hundreds or even thousands more throughout the other Hawaiian islands.

Described by Hawaiians as extending from mauka (mountains) to makai (ocean), each ahupua'a had its narrow starting point high in the inland volcanic peaks, and then widened, like a pie slice, to include a stretch of shore and the fishing grounds up to a mile out to sea. Channels diverted stream water to irrigate lo'i kalo (lowland taro pond fields), which were engineered to circulate water from pond to pond and prevent stagnation. The result: per-acre yields five times that of dryland farming.

Each ahupua'a ran from the inland mountains to the sea, taking in a stretch of shore and ocean fishing grounds (Credit: Hunter Dale/Getty Images)
Each ahupua'a ran from the inland mountains to the sea, taking in a stretch of shore and ocean fishing grounds (Credit: Hunter Dale/Getty Images)

Where the freshwater streams met the ocean, elaborate rock-walled fishponds mixed the nutrient-rich water from the taro ponds with tidal flow, creating ideal conditions for fattening fish captured through sluice gates. The uplands, considered wao akua(the realm of the gods), were off limits to all but those with knowledge of forest stewardship.

If you had an abundance of water then your land was rich and you had an abundance of food

"The thing about the ahupua'a that is important to understand is that water is the organising principle," said Davianna Pōmaikaʻi McGregor, professor of ethnic studies and director of the Center for Oral History at the University of Hawaii, Manoa. "Our word for water in Hawaiian is wa'i, and our word for wealth is wa'i wai, because if you had an abundance of water then your land was rich and you had an abundance of food."

In the community of Hā'ena at Kauai's remote north-western tip, decades of effort to preserve and restore one of the last remaining examples of a complete ahupua'a are paying off. Limahuli Garden & Preserve, which is part of Hā'ena, has now restored 600 acres of agricultural terracing. Hui Maka'āinana o Makana, a grassroots community group that includes many descendants of Hā'ena's original families, has rebuilt taro ponds and revitalised traditional mountains-to-sea land management while also creating the first state-sanctioned, community-based marine fishery.

In the process, Hā'ena has become a model for efforts to preserve existing ahupua'a throughout the islands and restore others long ago destroyed by pineapple plantations and cattle ranches.

"The apuhua'a system was very holistic, thinking about the ecology of the whole watershed and the agricultural land and fisheries as one place," said Lei Wann, director of Limahuli Garden & Preserve, who is descended from one of the original families of Hā'ena. "This is the way we managed our resources for hundreds of years, and now we're coming around to see how well they understood and cared for their environment by what's left to us today."

Across the islands, bold and diverse coalitions of community activists, scientists and environmentalists are working with the state government, the parks service and private landowners to re-establish traditional sustainable practices. And through efforts that have brought them international prominence, they're translating them to the modern environment – a key goal in a US state that now infamously imports 85% of its food.

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