Supporting the Mālama ʻĀina Economy


With the help of an OHA grant, Kupu is training future conservation leaders on Hawaiʻi, Maui, Molokaʻi and Kauaʻi

“He aliʻi ka ʻāina; he kauwā ke kanaka; The land is chief; man is its servant.”
Land has no need for man, but man needs the land and works it for a livelihood.

It’s part of the collective identity of Native Hawaiians. The land is chief, and man is its servant. The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.

Of all the wisdom left to us by our ancestors, caring for the ʻāina is one of the most valuable lessons.

“It’s important for Native Hawaiian youth to be trained for careers in conservation, for their benefit and for the benefit of all of Hawaiʻi,” said Kawika Riley, senior director for external affairs at Kupu. “Anyone born and raised here has a chance to develop a deep love, affection and understanding for the needs and possibilities that come from our ʻāina. But the Native Hawaiian community is uniquely suited to do amazing things in this area.

“Caring for the ʻāina is something that we are already raised to do. In a healthy, thriving Native Hawaiian family, you learn how to do that and for many of us, we think of it as a way of life. But, if given the opportunity to have a career in conservation and natural resource management, it also can be a way to feed your family, grow our economy, and give back.”

Over the last 20 years, Kupu has trained and created pathways for more than 5,000 youth and young adults preparing them for what they call the “Mālama ʻĀina Economy.”

Through its Conservation Leadership Development Program, Kupu provides rigorous, entry-level employment opportunities for developing ʻŌiwi professionals age 17 and older who want to commit to a career in conservation.

Most paid positions in conservation are currently held by non-Hawaiians. Kupu works to address the barriers that limit Native Hawaiian access to conservation jobs.

Kupu’s Conservation Leadership Development Program partners with federal, state, and community nonprofits whose primary goals are environmentally and sustainably focused, such as invasive species removal of plants and animals, habitat restoration, animal husbandry, trail restoration, nursery, and Native Hawaiian cultural stewardship.

The program currently has about 100 participants, with about a dozen participants across the pae ʻāina receiving funding through an Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) grant awarded in response to the COVID-19 pandemic with the goal of getting Native Hawaiians back to work.

Participants are paid for 11 months of service (plus health benefits) with a hosting organization and, upon completion of the program, are eligible for up to $6,100 in additional educational awards. Essentially a paid service term with scholarship money awaiting its graduates.

“We pay the participants in the Conservation Leadership Development Program because we expect a lot out of them. They are there to learn, they are there to grow, they are there to stretch themselves, and they are there to work. So, they are compensated for it.”

On Maui, where OHA’s Board of Trustees meeting will be held later this month, participants are working with nonprofits KAʻEHU and Kīpahulu ʻOhana, as well as Upcountry Farm Specialties, a wholesale coffee roasting company. Throughout their service term, students are educated, trained, and mentored by participating staff experts in hopes that one day, they will have the opportunity for employment that continues their aloha ʻāina efforts.

“Most of our programming is focused on green-collar jobs for young adults and early professionals. We’re preparing the next generation of mālama ʻāina professionals, empowering them with the tools, the access and experience to really grow that economy; helping them to create the kind of Hawaiʻi that we all want and envision, but that we haven’t achieved yet,” Riley said.

Riley said Kupu was excited to apply for and receive the grant awards from OHA.

“This partnership with OHA is solely focused on providing training, income and opportunity for Native Hawaiians. But another thing that we’ve worked hard to do is to place them at organizations that are owned, led or managed by Native Hawaiians as well.”

“So you get this double impact, because we want to support not only these future green-collar professionals, but we want to support today’s mālama ʻāina leaders who are trying to run their organizations in very difficult changing circumstances.”

Riley said he sees the value of partnerships and realizes that no one organization can address all the needs of the Hawaiian community single-handedly.

“When you reach a certain level, there’s an opportunity to focus on your core strengths that are of value to other organizations so that they can then focus on their own core strengths,” he said.

“At Kupu we picture ourselves as a connector to a network of hundreds of organizations. And through partnerships, we can do great things. We focus on the things that we’re good at. And then we work with our partners, like OHA, to have an impact that none of us could achieve on our own.”

To hear reflections from the OHA grantees, visit: