For the past two years, Solomon Kahoʻohalahala of Lānaʻi has provided an impactful Indigenous perspective at the international level in the effort to prevent deep-see mining

Photo Above: Over the past two years, Lānaʻi native Sol Kahoʻohalahala has become Hawaiʻi’s leading advocate in the fight to stop deep-sea mining. – Photo: Andrew Richard Hara

Photo: Solomon Pili Kahoʻohalahala
“As Indigenous people, it is time for us to be at the table, regardless of whether or not we are officially represented as a nation state, so our voices can still be heard.” – Photo: Andrew Richard Hara

“My foundation has always been with Liliʻu,” Solomon Pili Kahoʻohalahala said reverently. “Had the Queen not had the vision to see our place in the future, I donʻt know that I would be doing what Iʻm doing.”

Unassuming and gentle with his words, Kahoʻohalahala has become Hawaiʻi’s leading advocate in the fight to stop deep-sea mining (DSM).

As he speaks out against DSM at the international level before world leaders, scientists and policy-makers, the Kumulipo, Hawaiʻi’s renowned creation chant, is Kahoʻohalahala’s inspiration.

It was translated by Queen Liliʻuokalani during her imprisonment in ʻIolani Palace following the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, and Kahoʻohalahala says this is significant.

“The Queen herself said that her purpose for translating the Kumulipo into English was her hope that there would be a use for it in the future. She encouraged scientists and genealogists to examine our Kumulipo,” Kahoʻohalahala said.

“The Kumulipo is not just a chant. It has within it things we need to contemplate and that are necessary for us to know. It is helping us to understand that we have a genealogy that is part of our culture – and it is one that speaks of our creation and that takes us into the depths of the deepest part of the ocean.”

Kahoʻohalahala is from Lānaʻi where his ʻohana has lived for seven generations. He has dedicated most of his life to mālama ʻāina, which has led to his current involvement in the rapidly growing deep-sea mining issue.

Back in 1978, Kahoʻohalahala helped create marine life conservation districts on Lānaʻi. “We started by working in our own backyards,” he said.

Recognizing that other conservation areas in Hawaiʻi were also suffering from a lack of resources, environmental degradation, overfishing and a lack of enforcement, Kahoʻohalahala helped establish the Maui Nui Ma Kai Network – an Indigenous conservation hui founded by six community organizations from Lānaʻi, Maui and Molokaʻi that support one another in their respective efforts “to implement and maintain our own cultural ways to mālama our ʻāina from ma uka to ma kai.”

Island-specific, local conservation efforts led to statewide and then national efforts. Kahoʻohalahala became active with the Protect Kahoʻolawe ʻOhana and efforts to protect Papahānaumokuākea (Northwestern Hawaiian Islands).

Kahoʻohalahala also served three terms in the Hawaiʻi State Legislature, resigning in 2005 to become director of the Kahoʻolawe Island Reserve Commission. He currently serves as Native Hawaiian Elder on the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument’s Reserve Advisory Council and is a member of its Native Hawaiian Cultural Working Group, a cultural community member of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, chair of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, and has been a crewmember for Hōkūleʻa since 1975.

But it was his involvement in helping secure marine national monument designation for Papahānaumokuākea in 2006 under President George W. Bush, and its expansion in 2016 from 139,818 square miles to 582,578 square miles under President Barak Obama, that led to Kahoʻohalahala’s involvement in conservation efforts at the international level.

The August 2016 announcement about Papahānaumokuākea’s expansion coincided with a meeting in Honolulu of the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) which was being hosted in Hawaiʻi for the first time.

“As hosts, we were supportive of the international community and conservation,” Kahoʻohalahala said. “We also advocated for the inclusion of Indigenous voices to be elevated because Indigenous people have their own way of mālama – and that is conservation. It was an opportunity for us to see that we were not alone in this – that there was conservation happening with Indigenous people and local communities globally.”

Kahoʻohalahala’s powerful advocacy at the IUCN meeting led to invitations to attend other international gatherings on conservation and biodiversity.

“At these conventions they were looking at the protection of the earth based on the idea of 30%,” he explained, referring to what is known as “30×30,” a biodiversity framework (adopted in 2022 by more than 190 countries) that calls for the effective protection and management of at least 30% the world’s terrestrial, inland water, and coastal and marine
areas by 2030.

“Scientists have determined that in order for us to continue to sustain life on this planet, 30%, at minimum, of the ocean and land have to be protected.”

As Kahoʻohalahala networked with ocean conservationists from around the world, more international meeting invitations followed and eventually, he was invited to speak at one of the conferences. And when he did, he told them about the Kumulipo.

“The Kumulipo tells us we come from the deep ocean and [about] the creation of our eldest ancestor, Uku Koʻakoʻa (the coral polyp). This is our moʻokūʻauhau (genealogy). This is our understanding of who we are and where we come from.”

Indigenous voices are rarely heard at international assemblies of scientists and world leaders, and Kahoʻohalahala presented a perspective that had not previously been considered.

It made an impact.

In 2022, Kahoʻohalahala was invited to attend a meeting of the International Seabed Authority (ISA) as an Indigenous Native Hawaiian guest of Greenpeace, a nonprofit NGO (non-governmental organization) with “observer status” at the ISA. The ISA an entity under the umbrella of the United Nations charged with the regulation of the “high seas” – areas of the ocean beyond national boundaries.

“I was told, ʻyou should go to this meeting because they are talking about creating rules and regulations for the extraction and mining of the deep sea,’” he recalled.

“When I got there, I realized they were already attempting to create rules and regulations for the permitting and licensing of mining [operations] in the deep sea. And the area of concentration for the mining would take place just 500 miles southeast of Hawaiʻi.”

Marp showing fracture zones in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) of the Pacific Ocean

Clarion Clipperton Fracture Zone Map Legend

Although deep-sea mining has not yet been approved, as shown in this chart the International Seabed Authority (ISA), an arm of the United Nations, has already granted 16 licenses to mine polymetallic nodules in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) of the Pacific Ocean – the western end of which is just 500 miles southeast of Hawaiʻi Island. The catastrophic environmental impact of deep-sea mining on Pacific Island nations, and Hawaiʻi in particular, cannot be overstated. – Photo: International Seabed Authority

The focus of the ISA’s deliberations is the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), an area in the Central Pacific Ocean of more than 1.7 million square miles. The seabed in the CCZ is 2.5 to 3.5 miles deep and hosts more than 5,500 unique marine species. It is also an area rich in polymetallic nodules – potato-sized rocks that contain a wealth of precious minerals (see related story).

“If you look at the area superimposed over the continental U.S., it stretches from California to Washington, D.C., and it is the combined size of Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Nevada, California and Arizona. That is [how large an] area of ocean that would be mined.

“And these licenses would be granted for periods of up to 30 years – during which time private contractors would be dredging and digging and mining the ocean bottom. When I realized that this is what the ISA was considering for rulemaking, I was absolutely astounded,” Kahoʻohalahala said.

When he at last had an opportunity to intervene in the proceedings, Kahoʻohalahala introduced two ideas to the assembly. The first was that, because of the overthrow, “Hawaiʻi was removed from its place as a nation state among nation states, and therefore we have never sat at a table of nation states to have these discussions. I said that I’d like to think that there is a vacant seat at the table, and I would like to be the voice of that vacant seat until our political history is resolved.”

The second was explaining the significance of the Kumulipo, and that our genealogy, as Hawaiians, comes from the deep ocean. “It tells us where the mana and the energy of Kumulipo and Pōʻele and the organic matter at the bottom of the ocean is energized to create the first living creature, which is the uku koʻakoʻa (coral polyp). For us, it is an important and very sacred place of creation.

“Therefore, how is it that we would allow a process to intervene and intrude into our place of creation for the purpose of extraction? The extraction is being justified to [support] the green economy, but at no time did anyone consider that we have a connection to this place. So I am intervening and I am saying that we have a cultural connection to this place.”

Kahoʻohalahala’s remarks and the discussion that followed forced the assembly to consider what for many was a new concept: intangible cultural heritage.

The assembly had considered tangible cultural heritage in their discussions of the deep sea. But the tangible cultural heritage they talked about refers to the presence of man-made artifacts, sunken ships or architecture, or human remains found in the ocean.

Kahoʻohalahala explained that the cultural heritage he was describing is intangible. “Iʻm talking about the energy that is created in that space that creates life. That is not something you can hold in your hands. That is why I introduced the Kumulipo – because our story of creation is not tangible.

“So how do you now accommodate my relationship to the ocean – which you are now deciding to intervene in and disrupt and perhaps even destroy? Because it is a sacred place for us.”

That conversation opened a door to Kahoʻohalahala within the ISA and over the past two years, he has attended three ISA meetings (held three times a year in Kingston, Jamaica) – most recently last March.

Proponents of DSM at the ISA pitch the mining for polymetallic nodules as a solution to support “green” technologies designed to reduce carbon emissions in an effort to slow global warming and mitigate the impact of climate change. They argue that the deep ocean does not belong to any one nation, but is the “common heritage of humankind,” and that the area is vast and empty.

But in addressing the ISA, Kahoʻohalahala has laid claim to the Pacific Ocean.

“It is not a place that has been vacant. It is not a place of nothingness. The people of Oceania have traversed this ocean for millennia. We are the people who understand the intimacy of the ecosystems of these areas. It is our country. It is our home.”

A significant development in the efforts to stop DSM happened in June 2023. A new, legally binding international treaty that establishes a coordinated approach to establishing marine protected areas on the high seas – a critical step toward conserving ocean biodiversity and reaching the global 30×30 conservation target – was adopted at the United Nations.

Called the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ), 90 UN member nations have signed the treaty since the agreement was opened for signature last September. As of press time, however, only five countries have ratified the treaty. The BBNJ will “enter into force” when at least 60 countries ratify it.

The BBNJ is an agreement that protection of the ocean must be extended beyond national jurisdictions. “That’s why this is significant. Because the CCZ is in this area of jurisdiction beyond national boundaries,” Kahoʻohalahala explained. “That overlaps with what is currently happening at the ISA [and efforts to] mine the CCZ under the premise that it was a place that belonged to no one.”

Kahoʻohalahala says that additional countries are now in the process of ratifying the treaty. Once it is ratified by 60 nations, the ISA will have to incorporate the protections of the BBNJ into any of its decisions regarding DSM.

Thanks to efforts to stop DSM, the permitting process is on hold – providing a brief reprieve. However, the fight is far from finished. There are numerous countries and corporations hoping to cash in on the billions of dollars that could be made by mining the deep sea for the valuable polymetallic nodules – while claiming they are helping to save the earth.

Ironically, the rush to extract precious metals from the deep sea is probably not even necessary. According to Kahoʻohalahala, some researchers posit that there are sufficient stores of the rare metals needed for green technology from terrestrial mining that has already occurred – they just need to be recycled to meet the demand.

Photo: Subsea Mining Crawler
The Patania II is a 35-ton mining machine developed to collect polymetallic nodules from the deep sea. In 2021, a prototype of the machine was being tested in the Pacific south of Hawai’i by Global Seas Mineral Resources (GSM), a Belgium-based company, when it became detached from the cable linking it to the mining ship at the surface and sank almost 2.5 miles to the ocean floor. GSM was eventually able to retrieve the machine, but it serves as a warning as to the risks associated with deep-sea mining. – Photo:

Due to Kahoʻohalahala’s interventions in ISA proceedings relative to DSM, the secretariat of the ISA has allowed the convening of an intersessional (working) group. Kahoʻohalahala is a member of that group, along with representatives of other nations and ocean experts from supportive NGOs. The group is being facilitated by Clement Yow Mulalap of the Federated States of Micronesia, a seated ISA member state.

In preparation for the next ISA meeting in mid-July, Kahoʻohalahala, along with working group members from Aotearoa, Cook Islands, Fiji and Tahiti, drafted a document titled “The May 2024 Submission to the Intersessional Working Group on Intangible Cultural Heritage” for incorporation into ISA’s agenda and consideration by its council and assembly.

“This upcoming meeting is important,” Kahoʻohalahala said. “They will come to some kind of decision, and we’re hoping our concerns will be given consideration.” He said it was a good sign that at the most recent meeting in March, the working group was invited to express their concerns via an open discussion on the floor of the ISA facilitated by Mulalap.

With an eye to the future, Kahoʻohalahala has been mentoring ʻEkolu Lindsey of Maui Nui Ma Kai Network to carry forward the fight to stop DSM. Lindsey, from Maui, has accompanied Kahoʻohalahala to the ISA and is contributing to the document that will be presented in July. Kahoʻohalahala also shared that Maui Nui Ma Kai Network, having been incorporated as a nonprofit, is currently seeking NGO status at the ISA.

Global warming and climate change pose an existential threat to our collective survival. Far from being a solution to this crisis, DSM will exacerbate the harm already inflicted on our planet by unregulated, profit-driven human activity.

DSM is not just a problem for the people of Oceania. Its impact on our climate – in large part regulated by our oceans – will affect all life on our planet.

Reiterating that, up until this point, Hawaiians have been left out of DSM policymaking because of our political history, Kahoʻohalahala believes that there has never been a more important time for our people to be involved and active.

“If there was ever a time that Hawaiʻi needed to contribute to the betterment of the global community of people of whom we are part – and of the earth which is part of us – this is the time.

“The UN has called for Indigenous participation. They have called for integration. They have called for equity and justice. It’s important for us to participate because it’s going to impact us – whether we participate or not. So, we’d best make sure that we inform them about our place in the ocean and our place in the international body. If we don’t say anything, then what [ultimately] happens will be our fault.

“We cannot relent, and we cannot give up. We have to keep moving forward, but we have to know where we need to be, and why we need to be there, and what we envision ourselves to be.”

Last month, Sol Kahoʻohalahala received a Lifetime Achievement Award from London-based Blue Marine Foundation, a non-governmental organization committed to ocean protection and conservation. This award is given in recognition of an outstanding career that has made demonstrable difference to our knowledge and understanding of the world’s oceans and what needs to be done to improve and conserve their health.

Photo: Solomon Pili Kahoʻohalahala
Photo: Andrew Richard Hara

“As Kānaka, we don’t come into this honua until much, much later in this moʻokūʻauhau of creation. By the time we are brought into the honua, it is already in a place of balance. All things have evolved to their highest and best; they’re all integrated, and they’ve allowed us to now come into a space that we can be part of. We are not here to have dominance over the things that precede us. We are here to be a part of it. And our kuleana is to mālama that. So we have a responsibility – an inherent responsibility – to care for everything that precedes us.” – Sol Kahoʻohalahala