Understanding Wetlands From an Indigenous Perspective


Molokaʻi has some of the most extensive wetlands in Hawaiʻi.

These wetlands are not only important habitat for endangered species, but they also function to control flooding, improve water quality, control sediment, and they serve as a major resource for sustainable agriculture that has fed generations on the island.

The wetlands of Molokaʻi also feature heavily in moʻolelo and were a source of makaloa (a grasslike sedge) that was used to weave fine mats.

Today, these wetlands are being threatened due to sea-level rise and the effects of upland forest degradation.

The Molokaʻi Wetland Partnership (MWP) is an innovative approach to wetland restoration. Formed in 2020, the partnership is composed of federal, state, and community groups including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Hawaiʻi Division of Forestry and Wildlife, Nēnē o Molokaʻi, Ka Ipu Makani Cultural Heritage Center, Pacific Birds Habitat Joint Venture, Molokaʻi Land Trust, and the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.

MWP seeks to facilitate conversations about the wetlands, encourage Kānaka Maoli practices and knowldge systems, and help Moloka’i residents to get the skills, tools, and data they need to restore the wetlands as they see fit. MWP has not defined what wetland restoration constitutes and believes that it is up to the Molokaʻi community to decide how restoration should be carried out and what “restoration” itself should look like.

The partnership is a network of groups – but individual groups within MWP are already engaged in wetland restoration.

“When you look at cultural overlay of the different historical loʻi and the historical fishponds, it will coincide exactly with the overlay of what others define as ʻwetlands.’ They see a wetland. From our Indigenous perspective, we see it as a traditional agricultural, ecological, and cultural system,” said Pūlama Lima, executive director of Ka Ipu Makani Cultural Heritage Center.

“This model is applied throughout Hawaiʻi in other restoration work on fishponds and loʻi but what we want is to change the narrative of what a wetland is so an Indigenous perspective is put forth.

“One of the first projects we initiated as a partnership was a prioritization project that looked at different wetlands sites along Molokaʻi’s south shore and did field assessments to see the feasibility for the restoration of these wetlands sites considering climate change, sea level rise, and inundation. So we developed a pool to feel out which sites would be prime to restore now and would be resillient to climate change,” said Lima.

Some of the sites that were determined to be ready for restoration work and resilient to climate change include: Kaupapaloʻi o Kaʻamola; Kakahaiʻa; ʻŌhiʻapilo Pond; Punalau Pond; and Kamāhuʻehuʻe Pond. The results of the priority project were then taken to the Molokaʻi community for their manaʻo.

Due to the different definitions of “wetlands” at the federal, state and county levels – and each one with a different view of what restoration entails – Lima said that “wetlands is a very triggering word in our community because of how they are defined. There are a lot of hoops that people have to go through, and it seems like those conservation models are exclusive of human interaction – but that is what MWP is trying to change.”

These restrictive models of conservation and restoration invoke the historical trauma around Native Hawaiian land displacement. The permitting system itself underlies this exclusivity as permitting for restoring loʻi and loko iʻa is different from wetland restoration.

“Right now, restoring wetlands and restoring loʻi and fishponds are seen as two different types of restoration work,” Lima explained.

“But looking at the data we have collected and looking at the historical accounts, the Molokaʻi wetlands system functioned as it should when humans interacted with those spaces. What we are trying to say is that by restoring loʻi and restoring fishponds, this functions the way wetlands should function – which is to enhance our water and prevent sedimentation of our reefs. Essentially, these landscapes are wetlands – but are not currently viewed as such.”

MWP members are also seeking to bridge Western science and Indigenous knowledge in these spaces. Lima cited an example of this: “One of the biggest things I have learned from working with our scientific counterparts in this partnership is that within the scientific Western definition of wetlands, there are many types of wetlands. There are many categories of wetlands. In our kuanaʻike Hawaiʻi, we had the same. We had loʻi punawai, kiʻo wai, and wai mapuna – all of these places were identified as ʻāina wai, or ʻāina that served the purpose of water quality.”

Maui County has also had discussions with MWP regarding their plan to map all wetlands within the county and develop a cultural overlay. However, members of the Molokaʻi community, including MWP, have expressed that they don’t want certain cultural areas mapped within that overlay due to the sensitivity of the areas and concerns about how that data could be used.

MVP will be conducting community meetings for Molokaʻi residents throughout the year to share their manaʻo. For more information and to sign up for updates, contact Pūlama Lima at pulama@kaipumakanichc.org.