ʻO ka Malu ʻUlu o Lele


How the Verdant Lands of Lele Became Arid Lahaina

Watercolor of Lahaina's Waiola Church
In this 1852 watercolor of Lahaina’s Waiola Church, the region’s greenery and waterways are clearly depicted. Note the ducks swimming in a pond in the foreground. – Painting by James Gay Sawkins

The Leeward sides of our islands are more arid due to the rain shadow effect. Lahaina, located on the Leeward side, does not receive as much rainfall as other parts of Maui – yet it sustained generations of people and is an example of brilliant Kānaka Maoli ecological management and water stewardship.

Due to the region’s aquifer and 11 perennial streams, these water sources over thousands of years combined to create the Lahaina floodplains and surrounding wetlands including Mokuhinia, a 17-acre spring-fed wetland pond.

From the 1100s onwards, fishponds, alawai, and ʻauwai in the region carefully engineered the wetland ecosystem to provide not only food, but flood control.

A system of water allocation was devised to ensure that everyone in the community had access to water as it was a communal and sacred resource. ʻUlu, kalo, ʻuala, kukui, niu, and hala flourished in what was originally called Lele.

Kānaka Maoli planted ʻulu (breadfruit) and other trees to cover the landscape to create a cooler and more temperate microclimate. This tree cover helped to capture rainwater and condensation, control heat from the surface, and mitigate soil erosion and the effects of Lele’s powerful Kauaʻula wind.

The importance of this tree cover was well-understood, and the chopping or cutting down of these trees resulted in banishment.

By the 1400s, Lele became a major royal center of power under co-rulers, Kakaʻalaneo and Kakaʻe. Mokuhinia became a 17-acre royal fishpond. Around the 1600s, a 1-acre island called Mokuʻula was built and became the seat of Maui Mōʻī Piʻilani. Piʻilani’s daughter, Kalā‘aiheana, would be deified as Kihawahine and made her home at Mokuhinia.

Photo: Mokuhinia
Mokuhinia was a 17-acre fishpond in the center of what is now Lahaina Town. A small, 1-acre island, Mokuʻula, sat in the center of Mokuhinia. In the 17th century, Mokuʻula was established as the seat of government on Maui by celebrated Mōʻī Piʻilani. It was also the site of the royal residence of Kamehameha III some 200 years later. In the early 20th century, Mokuhinia was filled in and a baseball field built over it. This photo was taken in 1910. – Photo: Courtesy of Save The Wetlands

Lele became Lahaina sometime in the 17th or 18th century. In 1802, Kamehameha I briefly made Lahaina the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom although he moved it a year later.

From 1820-1845, Lahaina was again made the capital under Kamehameha II and later Kamehameha III, and it became an important whaling center and trading port. Kamehameha III made Mokuhinia his residence. Western accounts continued to note the lushness and abundance of Lahaina throughout the 1850s.

Photo: Chinese contract laborers on a 19th century sugar plantation
Chinese contract laborers on a 19th century sugar plantation. – Photo: Hawaiʻi State Archives

In 1849, sugarcane syrup began to be produced in Lahaina on a small scale. Due to the American Civil War, the demand from U.S. markets for food (potatoes, bananas, sweet potatoes, and meat) and sugar increased, and Maui became a food exporter.

To meet U.S. demands for sugar, the Pioneer Sugar Mill was founded in 1860 by industrialist James Campbell.

Initially, most of the sugar for the mill was being produced by Kānaka Maoli farmers. By 1866, Pioneer Sugar Mill bought out Lahaina Sugar Company and proceeded to acquire extensive land holdings around Lahaina and divert streams to feed its increasingly large sugar plantations. Sugarcane is considered a “thirsty” crop – it takes between 500-1000 liters of water to produce just 1 pound of sugar.

During that time, many kuleana properties were bought from Kānaka Maoli families who depended on the streams flowing from Mauna Kahālāwai for their loʻi kalo and kīhāpai (cultivated gardens). Kuleana land owners were eventually excluded from sugar production.

Hawaiian language newspapers at the time recorded that breadfruit trees were being burned or chopped down for sugarcane production. This altered centuries of microclimate engineering.

By 1867, large-scale sugar production had displaced kalo farming on Maui to such an extent that a famine occurred in Lahaina and food had to be imported from Waipiʻo Valley on Hawaiʻi Island for the first time in its history.

D. Kahaulelio, S.W. Nailiili, M. Ihihi, and D. Baldwin were appointed to an investigative committee that same year to find the cause of the famine. The committee listed four main causes: 1) the increase in sugar plantations; 2) farmers leaving to work in the mill and plantations; 3) the desire to earn a wage, and; 4) the shift in living conditions that came with Westernization and agrarian capitalism.

The committee noted the stream diversions that were happening for sugarcane production. They recommended the return to planting food crops, but nothing more was done.

The ratification of the Reciprocity Treaty of 1875 between the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi and the United States made sugar the pillar of the Hawaiian economy. Pioneer Sugar Mill and other sugar plantations accelerated their purchases and quiet titling of kuleana lands, ignoring previous agreements with kalo farmers.

The 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom hastened the erosion of water and kuleana land rights for Native Hawaiians.

Kānaka Maoli kalo farmers and Lahaina residents sued Pioneer Sugar Mill in several cases from 1895-1900 including Horner v Kumuliilii. Testimonies from kalo farmers noted how Pioneer Sugar Mill was cutting off their supply of water.

The Republic of Hawaiʻi’s courts recognized the right of native tenants to the use of water for irrigation “as established by ancient usage” and noted that kalo fields in Lahaina and nearby ahupuaʻa were being abandoned because of the lack of reliable water sources due to the sugar plantations.

By the 1900s, Lahaina had become arid; its streams and rivers had been diverted and its breadfruit trees and indigenous ecosystems had been replaced by sugarcane. Most of the fishponds and wetlands of Lahaina were filled in. The Mokuhinia royal complex was buried under coral and soil fill in 1914 and turned into a baseball park.

By 1935, Pioneer Sugar Mill controlled over 10,000 acres, half-owned and half leased, for sugarcane production. At its peak 30 years later in the 1960s, Pioneer Sugar Mill was processing 60,000 tons of sugar annually – and consuming millions of gallons of water for sugarcane cultivation and mill operations.

As tourism replaced sugar production in the 1980s, invasive grasses and other plants began to take over former sugarcane lands.

In 1999, the Pioneer Sugar Mill closed down. By the close of its operations, its water diversion had affected 27 streams and 11 watersheds. Water had also been extracted from artesian wells and directly from mountain sources.

That same year, land developers, including the West Maui Land Company, acquired the lands and sugarcane irrigation system from Pioneer Sugar Mill. Since then, various lawsuits have been brought against Maui Land Company and other developers including Makila Land Co., LCC v. Kapu in 2022. Water rights remain a vital issue on Maui.

The transition of the moku of Lahaina from a verdant and productive ʻāina momona, to an arid and thirsty dryland ecosystem has created an environment prone to wildfires. In August 2018, a fire ma uka of Lahaina town burned 21 homes and more than 2,100 acres of land.