Photo Above: A threatened and endangered green sea turtle rests peacefully on an undisclosed Oʻahu beach. – Photos: Melody Bentz Photography

“He aliʻi ka ʻāina; He kauwā ke kanaka. The land is chief; People are its servant.” – ʻōlelo Noʻeau

Lions lounging on a road in a South African park. Mountain goats roaming the streets of a small town in Wales. Sea lions sitting on a sidewalk in Argentina. Jackals frequenting a city park in Israel. By now most of us have seen fascinating images of wildlife wandering into human spaces as people worldwide have been in lockdowns to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. In some cases, the changes have been remarkable. The Himalayas are now visible from India for the first time in three decades. And there are blue skies in cities like Los Angeles and Beijing, both infamous for toxic levels of air pollution.

While we have been sheltering at home for the past three months, the Earth has been healing from humanity.

Closer to home, our coral reefs are rebounding in the absence of endless processions of beachgoers. Fish are more present in favorite snorkeling sites like Hanauma Bay and Molokini. Monk seals and honu are relaxing on Oʻahu beaches that are normally packed with tourists. Manu-o-Kū, a native seabird, have been spotted flying in downtown Honolulu.

Hiʻilei Kawelo is the Executive Director for Paepae O Heʻeia, a nonprofit dedicated to caring for Heʻeia Fishpond in Windward Oʻahu. According to Kawelo, the reduction of boat pollution in Kāneʻohe Bay had a significant impact. “Almost immediately we saw honu breeding everywhere in the bay. I also noticed activation of papio and barracuda about two months earlier than normal. And sharks are coming in to feed on the fish.”

Adds biologist Narissa Piʻilani Brown, “My colleagues have been monitoring coral reefs in Hanauma Bay for a decade. They report that the shutdown has been positive for the ecosystem. Beause we have baseline information on how wildlife typically responds in the presence of people, this allows scientists to study how humans impact the system, and how quickly an area can recover once this added pressure is removed or reduced.”

“Wildlife are taking back their spaces,” notes Moana Bjur, Conservation Council for Hawaiʻi Executive Director. Bjur, who lives on the North Shore of Oʻahu, has been witness to wild creatures venturing into places normally overrun with locals and tourists alike and worries what will happen when human activity resumes.

In addition to increased wildlife activity, the most significant change resulting from the worldwide curtailment of human activity and industry since February has been an astonishing decrease in air pollution, the predominant cause of global warming and climate change. Air pollution is also responsible for three million deaths a year, according to the World Health Organization; it weakens the immune system so people living in places with poor air quality often develop chronic lung disease. A recent study by Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health concluded that small increases in exposure to air pollution can greatly increase one’s risk of dying from COVID-19.

“Climate change is tied to the spread of diseases on the planet,” said Brown who points out that deforestation, another major culprit contributing to global warming, means more humans encroaching into animal habitats, increasing the likelihood that these creatures will be killed for human consumption which, in turn, leads to an increase in zoonotic diseases, where many viruses originate. Brown notes that COVID-19 is suspected to be of zoonotic origin.

The interconnection between human activity, global warming and disease is irrefutable; human behavior, resulting from our rabid consumption and consumerism, is the single greatest threat to the planet. “We haven’t been good stewards of our environment. To prevent global warming and future pandemics we need to do better,” said Jonee Leinaʻala Kaina Peters, a Native Hawaiian conservationist.

“We cannot keep treating the natural world like we are separate from it, and encroach upon it until it revolts in protest,” Brown warns. “We need to redefine ʻnormal’ in how we interact with the environment. This is a chance to hit the ʻreset button’ and decide how ʻbusiness as usual’ will be going forward. The old way is not working for us or the environment. The root of most of our environmental problems are actually people problems. This forced break gives us the time and opportunity to reflect.”

Kaui Lucas, a conservationist on the State’s Legacy Land Conservation Commission, believes we should apply the traditional concept of kapu to allow nature to heal, and restore a konohiki model of land management. “We need to establish manawa hoʻomaha, intentional times for the ʻāina to rest,” advocates Lucas. “We have to allow these places time to heal.”

“We need to get out of the way and let our environment heal,” agrees Brown. “But we can help. For example, we can remove invasive plants and allow native plants to fill in to help restore the ecosystem. We need to scale that up to the global level, but the fact that we live on an island is a metaphor for the rest of the world. We are a microcosm; an island chain with finite resources. We need to learn how to live in harmony with this place. Our kūpuna did it and we can too.”

The three-month worldwide timeout shows that the ʻāina can self-repair in a relatively brief amount of time. Hannah Springer, a Native Hawaiian cultural practioner from Hawaiʻi Island notes that “the atmosphere and certain wildlife show astoundingly quick responses to improved conditions.” However Springer cautions that “the dominant socio-economic perspective will probably prevail unless there is a shift among the critical mass of humanity away from the ʻnorm’ and its perceived advantages.”

As devastating as this pandemic has been to the thousands who have lost ʻohana to this disease and the millions who have been affected economically, the forced pause in human activity has shown that the specter of climate change can be exorcised. Collectively we can change our trajectory and take proactive steps towards slowing or stopping global warming to prevent sea level rise, loss of habitat, extinction of endangered species, diseases and, ultimately, our own demise. But as many countries begin to “reopen” to revive failing economies, environmentalists feel a sense of urgency.

“Now is the time to make changes,” Kawelo declares. “If not, climate change will make us more dependent. We have a few decades to implement everything. The decisions we need to make now are a matter of survival; they are live or die kinds of decisions.”

While climate change is undoubtedly the greatest threat to the planet, the solution is not as simple as reducing carbon emissions to decrease air pollution. This is a complicated matter rooted in political power structures, economic systems and wealth distribution.

“If you look at it broadly, Hawaiʻi’s most urgent root issues are poverty and a lack of sovereignty,” reflects Lucas. “Land use policies have the greatest impact on the environment. We are forced to use rules more appropriate for a continent than an archipelago. Our land use policies need to make sense for Hawaiʻi. We don’t have to be like the rest of the country.”

It is impossible to discuss the health of Hawaiʻi’s environment without considering the impact of tourism. In 2019, ten million tourists visited Hawaiʻi. In light of these astronomical and unsustainable numbers, Springer raises the issue of carrying capacity. “There should be studies conducted to understand how many souls may occupy places, given the circumstances of each particular place.”

Bjur has similar views. “If tourism continues unchecked that’s not going to be good for anybody. Let’s look at our food resources. Can we feed our residents? If yes, then determine how many extra people we can feed daily and limit hotel rooms to that number. Vanuatu, Guam and the Cook Islands have governing agreements to not let tourism dictate their economies. We should too.”

“There are places in the Philippines, Thailand, Scotland, Italy, Peru and Columbia with full or partial bans on tourism because of over-crowding, pollution, trespassing, etc.,” notes Kaina Peters. “They experienced a rebound of their natural resources and environments. Hawaiʻi needs decreased and managed tourism.”

Kawelo advocates low-impact, education-based tourism and conservation fees. “We should charge a ‘green fee’ like they do in Palau. Tourists pay $50 each which goes to Palau’s conservation programs.” Like Lucas, she favors implementing regular mandated rest periods for parks, beaches and hiking trails throughout the pae ʻāina. She also wants more wildlife sanctuaries and preserves. “There are spaces where people do not belong – Maunakea, Kaʻala, Kaʻena – close them to preserve pristine habitats.”

But with 21% of Hawaiʻi’s economy dependent on tourism, fundamentally changing and reducing tourism requires alternative economic solutions to provide viable employment for our community.

Food sovereignty has become a hot topic since the lockdown and layoffs. Investing now in diversified agriculture is one economic strategy that most residents seem to agree on. With pre-contact population estimates of up to one million people living self-sufficiently in Hawaiʻi, food sovereignty in 2020, with the current population of 1.4 million people and advanced technology, is entirely possible.

“All available ag land should be in small-scale cultivation,” asserts Kawelo. “Government needs to support local agriculture and aquaculture – incentivize it and remove the barriers – for example, let people live on their farms.” Kawelo sees restoration of loko iʻa as another strategy. At full capacity, Heʻeia fishpond has the potential to produce 500 lbs of fish per acre per year. She also says that invasive or predator species – like papio, barracuda, crabs or invasive limu – can be harvested and consumed.

Lucas likes the idea of harvesting invasive species to help to restore native ecosystems and using them as resources to create new industries. She points to the Albizia Project, which aims to harvest the invasive albizia tree as a replacement for douglas fir in local construction. She also advocates for regenerative agriculture. “In addition to food production why not raise non-food items that can be exported like industrial hemp, cannabis, coconuts, bamboo, sandalwood or herbs for essential oils?”

When this pandemic is finally over, many ʻōiwi hope for something better than a return to “normal.” There is a knowing that we have been out of balance for a very long time, and optimism that this terrible worldwide event might have a silver lining; that perhaps a “new normal” can come from this.

“Our honua is remarkably resilient and responsive to the mālama practices of kānaka, but the inevitable trade-offs between ecological and economic objectives must be recognized and planned for,” reflects Springer. “We have personal and collective agency to effect change; to be content with less convenience. If people would stay home and grow food most of what ails us would be healed.”