Building Pilina with the ʻĀina

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An OHA grant is helping The Kohala Center engage the Kawaihae community in restoring the area’s dryland native forest.

Work completed by The Kohala Center (TKC) volunteers during “Hoaʻāina Days” at the 60-acre property in Kawaihae that TKC stewards includes planting native forest species, mālama of outplantings through invasive species removal, and mulching. – Photos: The Kohala Center

Hānau ka ʻāina, hānau ke aliʻi, hānau ke kanaka.
Born was the land, born were the chiefs, born were the common people.
The land, the chiefs, and the commoners belong together.

Their goal is to connect people to the land, believing that by helping to heal the ʻāina, people can also heal themselves.

The Kohala Center (TKC) is an independent, community-based nonprofit focused on research, education, and ʻāina stewardship for healthier ecosystems. They believe that by turning ancestral knowledge and research into action, conditions are cultivated that reconnect Native Hawaiians with their place, water, food and each other.

The organization was recently awarded a $150,000 grant from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) for its “Hoʻolauna Kawaihae: Building Pilina Through Respectful Engagement” project which focuses on the restoration of leeward Kohala’s dryland forest system focused in the ahupuaʻa of Kawaihae Komohana.

OHA’s Grants Program supports Hawaiʻi-based nonprofit organizations that have projects, programs and initiatives that serve the lāhui in alignment with OHA’s Mana i Mauli Ola Strategic Plan, which builds upon the Native Hawaiian strengths of ʻohana, mo’omeheu and ʻāina.

“Through this project, we’re able to help connect our community to the natural, historical, and cultural resources of the ahupuaʻa of Kawaihae, where our organization holds kuleana as a steward of this place,” said Kaimana Chock, an ʻāina-based education specialist and Kilohana Nursery project manager with TKC.

Once a rich and diverse native ecosystem full of native plant, bird, and insect species, Chock said our dryland forests have been greatly reduced by cattle and other ungulates, human activities, the influx of invasive species, wildfires and climate change, and other threats.

“This project looks to continue work to mālama our remaining dryland forest resources in Kawaihae and expand efforts of reforestation by engaging our community members directly in the work, building their pilina (relationship) to the ʻāina and the forest,” Chock said.

“By introducing our participants to the remnants of our native forest and restoration efforts – and the different species that make up the forest – the wai resources, the inoa ʻāina (place names) and characteristics of place, the cultural and archaeological resources in the area, and more, we are building and strengthening our community’s capacity to steward and be stewarded by the ʻāina of Kawaihae.”

The project operates by inviting Kawaihae’s community of hoaʻāina (companions/caretakers of the land) to participate in regular Hoaʻāina Day experiences in ma uka areas of Kawaihae. Participants engage in four essential stewardship practices with the native dryland forest: hoʻolauna (a process of introduction), kilo (a process of observation), hana (a process of work and activity), and moʻolelo (a process of storytelling and story-keeping).

These practices are grounded in ʻike Hawaiʻi and draw, as well, from western understandings of best practices in conservation.

Activities take place primarily at Keawewai, a 60-acre property in Kawaihae stewarded by TKC, with occasional engagements at the Koaiʻa Tree Sanctuary and Koaiʻa Corridor in nearby Puʻu Kawaiwai. Examples of hana completed during Hoaʻāina Days include planting forest species, mālama of outplantings through invasive plant species removal and mulching, respectful visits to cultural sites, and other activities.

Through these hoaʻāina experiences, the goal is that the 140 Native Hawaiian participants will increase their ʻike of Kawaihae, respectfully engage with ʻāina, gain a greater knowledge of the cultural, historical and archaeological resources of the ahupuaʻa, and eventually help TKC to determine the best culturally informed and place-based stewardship practices for Kawaihae’s dryland forests.

“If you look ma uka from Kawaihae, you will see what looks like a small patch of green in a landscape of barren, dry areas on both sides of Keawewai – this is where the water flows and is captured by reservoirs, gullies and rock basins which is carried down the gulches during the rainy season,” said Diane “Makaʻala” Kanealii, who along with her husband Maha has participated in several Hoaʻāina Days.

“For us, Keawewai represents what old Hawaiʻi looked like before the land was deforested, before cattle ranching decimated the lands. By participating in the workdays, we have the opportunity to participate in helping to heal the land with the restoration of native plants for the next generation.”

Kanealii said that by helping care for the land, she’s helping to care for herself.

“It is a perfect place to spend some time to heal a place and a place to heal. This project proves that by taking steady baby steps, ʻāina and poʻe can be restored, one plant at a time. We are blessed to live in one of the most beautiful places in the world, so we give back to the lands that give us so much,” she said.

“The success of Keawewai is a success for us all. We go to Keawewai to give back to a place that is nourishing the ʻāina as we are nourished in spirit and healing ourselves.”

“OHA’s grant program is so important for communities and organizations across Hawaiʻi to be able to engage in work that builds on the health and wellbeing of our kānaka and lāhui. “Through OHA’s support, TKC has been able to create the space to engage with multigenerational systems of ʻāina stewards,” Chock said.

“We are honored to hold this space in Kawaihae, yet all of our ʻāina and communities across Hawaiʻi need stewards who will help in big ways and small to do their part to contribute to our collective health and wellbeing. Engaging with ʻāina through mālama is just one way that we can all give back to this place we call home.”