Stewardship Instead of Ownership

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Wai (nvs. Fresh water of any kind, stream, river.)

Photo: Sylvia Hussey

Aloha mai kākou,

My mom was born and raised in a remote area of Kohala known as Waiʻāpuka ma uka of Pololū Valley. She was the second of 15 children and everyone helped to provide food for family, including working the loʻi kalo.

Their loʻi was alongside a kahawai (stream). My grandfather built an ʻauwai (small ditch) to divert wai (fresh water) to irrigate the loʻi. The water flowed through the tiered loʻi, and then back into the kahawai through another ʻauwai.

Growing up, my mother taught us early on the importance of the kahawai ma uka to ma kai. She made it clear to us that wai was a precious resource and that we all had a kuleana to mālama the wai and keep the kahawai pure, as its waters continued being a resource to other families along the way to the sea.

When Native Hawaiians and other Indigenous peoples clash with the government on issues pertaining to the management of land and water resources, it really is a collision of world views. Indigenous people see our relationship to the earth as familial and management of its resources as stewardship. In contrast, governments and corporations view natural resources in terms of ownership.

And owners do things differently than stewards.

In Hawaiʻi, the fight for water rights has been ongoing since Western capitalism was introduced in the 19th century. To our kūpuna, the notion that land or water, gifts from Ke Akua, could be “owned” by a human being, was completely foreign.

After the Māhele paved the way for foreign land ownership, haole businessmen snatched up acres of Hawaiian land for their ranches and plantations and then, in a brazen economic coup, diverted water from upland streams and rivers to feed their thirsty crops. Thousands were forced to leave their ancestral lands as their farms and loʻi dried up.

The plantations have been replaced by resort developers and so the fight over fresh water has continued to play out in communities across ko Hawaiʻi pae ʻāina, perhaps most contentiously on the island of Maui.

If policymakers viewed land and water in terms of stewardship, instead of ownership, would policies look different? And would people behave differently as a result of implementing stewardship (vs. ownership) policies?

The fight for wai is, ultimately, about economic power and control. And that is why it is critical for Native Hawaiians to have a seat at the table on key boards and commissions – such as the Department of Land and Natural Resources and the Commission on Water Resource Management. We need people in governance with an Indigenous lens to help shape policies that will serve our lāhui and protect the things that we hold dear: our ʻohana, moʻomeheu and ʻāina.

Ownership is a mindset of “me” and “now.” Stewardship is a mindset of “we” and “forever.”

We cannot really own resources that existed before we were born and will exist after we are gone – but we can steward these resources for the relatively short time that we are here.

Sylvia M. Hussey, Ed.D.
Ka Pouhana | Chief Executive Officer