Returning to Pono Resource Management in Maui Komohana

Contributed by Ka Huli Ao Center for Excellence in Native Hawaiian Law

In Hawaiʻi, our mele are a repository of knowledge and lifeways. Mele can serve a number of functions such as encapsulating history, expressing feelings of aloha, and manifesting pride for our ʻāina.

Lei Nāhonoapiʻilani, written by Mima Apo, is one such mele. Set to the tune of the familiar Hawaiʻi Aloha, Lei Nāhonoapiʻilani captures the beauty of the famed bays of Piʻilani. Like many of our mele, Lei Nāhonoapiʻilani is also a roadmap for that which is important — the tranquility of Hauola, the lehua of Līhau, and the fragrant maile of Halona.

Photo: Honokōhau River
Honokōhau River is the largest river in Maui Komohana. This river once fed over 5,000 loʻi kalo terraces in the valley. Today, large portions of the stream are diverted for agricultural, commercial, and municipal purposes. – Photos: Ka Huli Ao

All of these things are dependent on a thriving ʻāina. And for ʻāina to thrive, our people integrated pono resource management into the fabric of our native society.

Following Western contact, however, our intricate and effective systems of resource management were upended by foreign values and interests. Wai, a resource essential for life in these islands, was treated as a commodity, rather than a kinolau, or a physical embodiment, of our akua. Today, Hawaiʻi continues to grapple with the remnants of this imbalance.

Maui’s kupa, in many ways, have been on the frontlines of advocating for a return to pono management of wai over the past several decades. In partnership with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), Ka Huli Ao Center for Excellence in Native Hawaiian Law’s clinical courses seek to learn from and co-power our communities in their efforts to return to pono natural resource management and bring the law to life on the ground.

Disrupting Pono: Historical Context Around Maui Komohana

Map showing Maui Komohana (West Maui)

Maui Komohana, an area often referred to as “West Maui,” was a bastion of Kānaka Maoli ingenuity, agriculture, and strength that boasted an abundance of freshwater and countless loʻi stretching from ma uka to ma kai. Once the capital of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, the area could produce enough food, and kalo in particular, to feed the entire Hawaiian Kingdom with a surplus.

When malihini arrived on Maui Komohana’s shores during the early 1790s, they described Lāhainā as “the Venice of the Pacific.” This abundance of fresh flowing water was maintained throughout Maui Komohana via a complex system of waterways, ʻauwai, and drainage systems.

The piko of this freshwater abundance was Mokuʻula Island and Mokuhinia, a 17-acre pūnāwai – the sacred pond that served as the royal residence of the high chiefs and as the center of politics and governance for the Kingdom. True to the biocultural resource management practices of pre-contact times, wai was a resource that was to be managed sustainably and effectively into perpetuity.

The rise of sugar and pineapple plantations across Hawaiʻi, and Maui in particular, during the mid-1800s altered and disrupted the landscape of wai in Maui Komohana.

Spearheaded by Pioneer Mill, Honolua Ranch, and Maui Land & Pineapple, Co. through the construction and development of extensive concrete ditch systems and wells, there was a coordinated effort to obtain, extract, and monopolize wai in Maui Komohana.

In what became a broader effort to subsidize the mass cultivation of sugarcane and pineapple, plantation interests levied a war against Kānaka Maoli by diverting massive amounts of water and sending this wai out of their ahupuaʻa of origin, away from their natural flows. These diversions, in some cases, left historically perennial rivers and streams across Maui Komohana entirely dry, and others with barely a trickle.

Given that extraction, many ʻohana lacked sufficient water flow to cultivate kalo consistent with traditional and customary practices, which led to an exodus of many Kānaka from the land on which they had lived since time immemorial. As plantation interests continued to expand operations over the following century, more and more wai and land was diverted from Maui Komohana to feed the capitalist machine that was sugar and pineapple cultivation.

Because these are among the thirstiest crops, the amount of water being taken from this once bountiful region had devastating impacts on Kānaka Maoli life and culture, on the region’s agricultural potential, native plant and wildlife communities, as well as on the preservation and exercise of traditional and customary rights.

In the early 1990s, after many years of declining profits, the plantation industry in Hawaiʻi collapsed and the cultivation of sugarcane ceased in West Maui. Despite this collapse, it was not long before another actor stepped in to further monopolize and withhold water resources across Maui Komohana: the tourism and hospitality industry.

This undeniable opportunity to re-examine the allocation and prioritization of water to better repair and restore harms to Kānaka Maoli following the collapse of sugar plantations was, instead, exploited for a new, more “modern” capitalist endeavor.

Today, the same freshwater diversions that once fed the thirsty demands of sugarcane and pineapple fields now feed the exorbitant water requirements of golf courses, luxury pools, artificial waterfalls, manicured lawns and lush gardens at the hotels and resorts that line the coast of Maui Komohana.

As a result, ʻāina in Maui Komohana has been significantly transformed.

Mokuʻula and Mokuhinia, which were once home to the famed moʻo, Kihawahine, now lies beneath an abandoned baseball field on the margins of Front Street – a tourist destination hot spot. Hauola, boasted by haku mele Mima Apo as a tranquil place in the sea spray, is now inundated with malihini chasing the best view of the setting sun. These sacred and storied ʻāina as our kūpuna once knew them are now mostly accessible via mele. The intricate systems of resource management waiting to be fulfilled.

Cultural practitioners and ʻohana with generational ties to Maui Komohana endeavor to reassert their pilina as well as to combat long-standing and foreign interests in the region.

Oftentimes, with constitutional protections around traditional and customary practices such as loʻi kalo cultivation, these beneficiaries’ work is a matter of bringing the law to life on the ground. For many of these ʻohana, getting wai back to their ʻāina is an immense task and undertaking — one which Ka Huli Ao’s law students are trained for and humbled to be of service in, with support from OHA’s Aʻo Aku, Aʻo Mai Initiative.

A Turning Point

Recognizing the struggle for water equity in the area, and as a part of its kuleana to steward our natural resources, the Commission on Water Resource Management designated the entire Lāhainā Aquifer Sector as a Surface and Ground Water Management Area.

Designation, which was unanimously approved by the Commission in June 2022, is one of the principal tools by which Hawaiʻi’s Water Code seeks to manage and prioritize water resources. In short, designation is a process by which water allocations are re-examined using current legal standards, which prioritize Native Hawaiian traditional and customary use for practices such as loʻi kalo cultivation. Designation represents the first meaningful step in obtaining water equity and serves as an instrumental piece in the broader tapestry of restorative justice for Kānaka in Maui Komohana.

Through OHA’s Aʻo Aku, Aʻo Mai Initiative, the Native Hawaiian Rights Clinic (Clinic) provides current law students and soon-to-be lawyers the opportunity to work directly with Native Hawaiians to advance legal and administrative justice on a wide range of issues relating to Native Hawaiian law.

Recognizing the immensity of designation in Maui Komohana – especially given the complex history in the region – the Clinic began conducting community outreach throughout Maui Komohana to provide education regarding the process of designation.

Designation is complex and has profound implications. Maui Komohana’s designation is the first complete (both Ground and Surface) water management area across our pae ʻāina. For the community to participate actively and effectively, the Clinic recognized the importance of early and in-depth outreach around the process and its far-reaching implications for the future management of wai across this region. A number of informational workshops were conducted for the community. Given the ongoing pandemic, the sessions were held both online, via Zoom, and in person on Maui.

The law students were first tasked to grasp the complex background of Hawaiʻi’s water law, policy, and its close relation to Water Management Areas, and then translate that for community members. The Clinic was intentional in offering direct outreach to more rural areas of Maui Komohana — conducting multiple site visits to meet in person on the ʻāina of community members to discuss designation in more detail.

Over several years, the Clinic’s many law students have provided direct services to Kānaka Maoli across Maui Komohana regarding designation and the further protection of its precious wai. In addition to education and outreach, volunteer attorneys and law students provided extensive pro bono assistance.

While the students’ primary kuleana in the Clinic involved sharing legal information, services, and resources, the students often learned important lessons from community members in return. This exchange is best embodied in the practice of Aʻo Aku, Aʻo Mai – one of Ka Huli Ao’s core educational philosophies.

Aʻo Aku, Aʻo Mai

Photo: Loi
Adequate streamflow is necessary for loʻi kalo cultivation in Honokōhau Valley and the perpetuation of traditional and customary Native Hawaiian practices.

The reciprocal relationship between teaching and learning is embodied in the Aʻo Aku Aʻo Mai Initiative. As a partnership between OHA and Ka Huli Ao, the initiative gives law students real-world practice experience, while also providing direct legal services to rural communities throughout Hawaiʻi.

Established in 2011, the partnership initially supported Native Hawaiians navigating the Bartell v. Heroes or Assigns of Manuela case. The Clinic’s assistance primarily focused on Kānaka impacted by clearing title to Native Hawaiian ancestral land on Molokaʻi. Through the support of the Clinic, nearly 40 law students worked with more than 156 individuals and their ʻohana in receiving direct services, including community workshops and a legal primer on Quiet Title and Land Partition law.

Due to the resounding success of the initial clinic, OHA continued to support the Aʻo Aku Aʻo Mai Initiative and has greatly expanded the scope of services. This continued partnership includes providing free training and workshops on various legal rights and issues, the distribution of legal primers as one-stop-shop legal reference resources, and direct legal assistance on a range of pressing topics related to Native Hawaiian law and justice.

OHA’s ongoing support is vital for beneficiaries across Hawaiʻi, but particularly those in rural neighbor island communities who most often face a dearth of legal resources and significant barriers to exercising constitutional and statutorily guaranteed Native Hawaiian rights.

Maui’s communities continue to strive to return wai to ʻāina of abundance. With credit to many of the fearless community leaders who drive these efforts, Ka Huli Ao is grateful to learn from and work in solidarity with the individuals who know best: the kupa of our sacred places. When we strive to co-power one another and center ʻāina and its natural resources in our work, we make progress at reinstating the model of prosperity for which Maui Komohana was famed. Lei Nāhonoapiʻilani i ka hanohano – Nāhonoapiʻilani is bedecked in glory!

Ka Huli Ao Center for Excellence in Native Hawaiian Law is an academic center within the William S. Richardson School of Law. This article was written by Post.-J.D. Fellows Troy W. Ballard and Tereariʻi Chandler-ʻĪao, Assistant Professor Uʻilani Tanigawa Lum, and Professor Kapua Sproat.

For more information about Ka Huli Ao Center for Excellence in Native Hawaiian Law or the Aʻo Aku Aʻo Mai Initiative go to: or email