ʻĀina Aloha Economic Futures: A Vision for Hawaiʻi’s Economy Grounded in ʻIke Kūpuna

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For two months last spring, Hawaiʻi underwent an extreme lockdown to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 across our pae ʻāina.

People employed in the service and hospitality industries were hit the hardest, as tourism ground to a halt and hotels, restaurants, bars, spas, and tour companies were closed and most folks working on the frontlines of these businesses were laid off or furloughed.

In the pause that the lockdown created, one thing became clear: Hawaiʻi’s dependence on tourism is not a strong foundation for a resilient, thriving, self-sufficient economy.

Economic recovery was on everyone’s mind as unemployment claims multiplied and meal programs were hastily organized to kōkua neighbors abruptly left without resources. Local farmers became heroes, supplying fresh produce to help mālama our communities.

Elected officials and business leaders were suddenly discussing “sustainability” and “food sovereignty” – topics usually broached exclusively by community advocates and social activists.

Amidst the chaos, a diverse group of Native Hawaiians came together organically after many separate conversations about the need to include Kānaka Maoli voices and values in Hawaiʻi’s post-pandemic economic recovery.

Together they developed a framework for economic recovery they called ʻĀina Aloha Economic Futures (AAEF) and drafted an ʻĀina Aloha Economic Futures Declaration that was sent to Gov. David Ige on May 19, 2020. The declaration included four ancestral values (see sidebar) to guide planning for a stronger, more sustainable economy. It also included a call for unity, and for the involvement of Native Hawaiians and the community in the planning process.

“The goal is an economy that takes care of our ʻāina, that is regenerative, that is equitable, that supports the many and not just the few, and that honors the ʻike of our kūpuna that fed this place in abundance for centuries,” explained UH Mānoa professor Dr. Kamana Beamer, one of the 14 ʻŌiwi who authored the declaration. “We are part of an interpretation of how a circular economy might work in the world.”

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which has championed the idea, a circular economy “is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.”

Continued Beamer, “Our ancestral economy was circular. Nothing went to waste. It was equitable. We had a whole system of kālaiʻāina (a political economy) that consistently redistributed resources, even among the chiefs. People had different kuleana and kūlana (rank) but it was always about the long game – like kōnane – it was about playing for the last move, not taking everything you can and hoarding it.”

Like others, Beamer saw an opportunity in the economic challenges of the pandemic, and in the unexpected respite from tourism.

“I’ve seen examples of circular economies,” said Beamer. “Germany is an incredible leader. They see the problems that our linear ‘take-make-waste’ economy has created and how it has degraded our environment. They view this as a design problem.”

Beamer points out that the Germans have designed parking lots with pervious surfaces that capture rainfall runoff and drain it into aquifers that filter the water. And their energy production systems actually empower and provide for the community; power companies cannot stop people from producing power, and they have to buy back the surplus.

“This isn’t a utopian vision. Hawaiʻi can be a leader in creating an Indigenous circular economy. There are real, tangible steps we can take to achieve this,” Beamer insists.

Like Beamer, Dr. Noe Noe Wong-Wilson, an educator, cultural practitioner and one of the 14 authors of the AAEF declaration, also believes that establishing a circular economy in Hawaiʻi is achievable.

“We aren’t far from making some really huge shifts in the way we do business in Hawaiʻi,” said Wong-Wilson, noting that Hawaiʻi, Maui and Kauaʻi counties have all adopted the AAEF declaration and initiative.

Wong-Wilson, who resides on Hawaiʻi Island, said, “Our new mayor and our county council are supporters of AAEF. We’re working together to try to actually embed these values into Hawaiʻi county department processes.”

She said the group is still working with the Honolulu City Council in hopes they will embrace the AAEF initiative as well, but notes the biggest challenge will be to get the state government to join the effort.

“This is grassroots – it starts at the bottom, with individuals, with the community,” said Wong-Wilson. “And it’s working its way up. The lower levels of government seem to be embracing this, and I think it will just continue moving forward.

“We will begin making significant changes to the way we think and the way we act. And I think what really pushes that is necessity. We watch our ʻāina suffering, and we see the differences in our beaches and forests when we remove our human presence.

“As ʻĀina Aloha we want to help make this shift throughout the community by supporting others who are doing similar work, and by working collaboratively with government and the private sector while making sure that the community voice is always up front.”

ʻĀina Aloha Economic Futures

Empowering the voice of the community, and Native Hawaiians in particular, is key to their work. Following their declaration last May, AAEF developed a framework of actionable goals. Then, through a series of webinars over the summer, gathered and prioritized a community-driven set of more than 180 proposals. Those proposals are informing their next step – the development of a series of three “playbooks.”

The first playbook focuses on proposals that can be introduced to elected officials and policy makers to promote changes that can start to shape a new future. To this end, AAEF is working on a legislative package that they hope will get traction during the 2021 session.

The second playbook will focus on ways that the community can contribute, individually and collectively, to leverage its strengths and resources. The third playbook will be directed towards external investors, establishing expectations for their positive contributions to Hawaiʻi should they choose to be part of this community.

“Between the three playbooks we’re trying to address all of the ways we can collectively work together to make improvements, and to make sure that the future for everybody is bright – not just for the top 10%,” said Wong-Wilson. “We’re looking at our future economy from a perspective that has not been presented before; a perspective rooted in our ʻike kūpuna.”

Ikaika Hussey, an activist and founder of Hawaiʻi Federated Industries, and one of the 14 authors of the AAEF declaration added, “We absolutely have to make the transition to a more democratic and just economy, to a healthier economy – one that takes care of everybody.”

For more information go to: www.ainaalohafutures.com

ʻĀina Aloha Economic Futures Guiding Principles

ʻĀina Aloha

We are of and from this ʻāina that ultimately sustains us. We employ strategies for economic development that place our kuleana to steward precious, limited resources in a manner that ensures our long-term horizon as a viable island people and place.

ʻŌpū Aliʻi

Our leaders understand that their privilege to lead is directly dependent on those they serve. From the most vulnerable to the most privileged, we seek to regenerate an abundance that provides for everyone. Decision makers understand and embrace their duty and accountability to Community. Our social, economic and government systems engage and respond to a collective voice in integrative ways to balance power and benefit.

ʻImi ʻOi Kelakela

We are driven by creativity and innovation, constantly challenging the status quo. We are mindful and observant of needs, trends and opportunities and seek new knowledge and development opportunities in ways that enhance our way of life without jeopardizing our foundation of ʻāina aloha.

Hoʻokipa

We are inclusive and embrace the collective that will call Hawaiʻi home, grounded in the fundamental understanding that it is our kuleana to control and manage our resources in a way that allows us to fulfill our role as hosts here in our ʻāina aloha.