Restoring our Lifeline in Waiʻoli

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For generations of mahiʻai from Waiʻoli, Kauaʻi, kalo farming is a way of life. Each successive generation learns about the flow of the ʻauwai, the right texture and temperature of the soil, the taste of each kalo species, when to harvest, and when to let the land rest. This is the intimate relationship and ʻāina knowledge of their kūpuna that they are passing down.

Kauaʻi farmers grow 80% of Hawaiʻi’s kalo that ends up in our homes; and about 30% of that comes directly from Waiʻoli.

“I help my dad. He’s 83 and still goes to the loʻi everyday,” shared Joanne Kaona. “He learned kalo farming from his father, and his father from his father.” As in many mahiʻai families from Waiʻoli, Joanne grew up working in the loʻi with her father, Clarence “Shorty” Kaona.

However, when heavy rain in April 2018 brought torrential flooding to Kauaʻi’s north shore, the Waiʻoli loʻi kalo system was completely destroyed. The landscape of the river was altered and redirected and landslides and fallen trees prevented most of the water from reaching the farms. In the aftermath, some loʻi were dried out. Twenty months later, the problems remain.

“Not even half of our patches are planted or being harvested now,” said Kaisen Carrillo. “The silt from the landslides is high in nitrogen, so the kalo doesn’t grow right. You have to restore pH levels by removing the silt, and for that you need big machinery: bulldozers and excavators.”

After the flooding, the community came together to clear the ʻauwai and was successful in restarting a small flow. However, during disaster relief efforts they discovered that much of Waiʻoli’s loʻi kalo system is on conservation land, presenting a new set of challenges regarding access.

To address the situation, Ka Huli Ao Center for Excellence in Native Hawaiian Law at UH Mānoa’s William S. Richardson School of Law, through an environmental law clinic funded through the Office of Hawaiian Affairs’ Aʻo Aku Aʻo Mai initiative, helped to organize the Waiʻoli Valley Taro Hui, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit was established to preserve kalo farming as a traditional and cultural practice and protect natural resources.

“The Waiʻoli Valley Taro Hui is a collaboration of small farmers who have been farming since time immemorial. They have helped steward the mānowai, poʻowai, and ʻauwai systems that have fed our community for many many generations,” said D. Kapuaʻala Sproat, Director of Ka Huli Ao and the Environmental Law Clinic.

“Permitting was a complex maze of requirements between county, state, and federal agencies,” shared Sproat. “Ka Huli Ao and OHA partnered with the Hui starting in January 2019, and together we identified the permitting hurdles that would need to be addressed. We also worked with them to establish nonprofit and federal tax exempt status, and then submitted an application to the Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) for an easement.”

Last May, the BLNR voted unanimously to approve the Hui’s 55-year easement and Right of Entry free of charge. Said Sproat, “we’re really proud of what has happened here. We provided direct benefits for this community, but also a potential model for lāhui a mau loa.”

“It’s important that OHA stays involved,” said Dan Ahuna, OHA Trustee for Kauaʻi. “It’s who we are. We’re part of this land. We’re part of this culture.”

The next step is to repair the ʻauwai. But with the rainy season already upon us, the entire loʻi kalo system is vulnerable to additional erosion and breaks. Farmers are anxiously waiting for the finalization of legal permits so that the emergency resources can be released for the extensive work which requires equipment and professional help.

Said Waiʻoli farmer Chris Kobayashi, “The ʻauwai is our lifeline for feeding our kalo. If it breaks anymore, we’ll be in worse shape for sure.”