Walking the trails of Limahuli Park and Preserve, my jacket drenched by the steady rain typical of Kauai’s lush north shore, I bent over posters presenting Pritchardia limahuliensis, endemic only to this Hawaiian valley, and breathed in the sweet scent. white hibiscus koki’o ke’oke’o, once considered extinct.
But while I arrived in Limahuli eager to see the rarities preserved in this 17-hectare National Tropical Botanical Garden, I was soon struck by something even more fascinating: the intricate layers of ancient rock-walled terraces that rise up the valley and disappear into the dense waters. mountain forests above. Shown by carbon dates to be more than 1,000 years old, they are part of the ancient ahupua, a complex system of land management and food production that allowed the once isolated and densely populated pre-contact communities of Hawaii to be completely self-sufficient. .
Pre-contact Kauai had more than 50 ahupua, with hundreds or even thousands more on other Hawaiian islands.
Described by Hawaiians as extending from the mauka (mountains) to the makai (ocean), each ahupua’a had a narrow starting point high on inland volcanic peaks and then widened like a slice of pie to the coast and fishing grounds. area about a mile to the sea. Canals diverted runoff to irrigate lo’i kalo (awan taro ponds) designed to circulate water from pond to pond and prevent stagnation. The result: yields five times more per hectare than dry farming.
Where the freshwater streams met the ocean, rock-walled fishponds mixed the nutrient-rich water from the taro ponds with the tidal flow, creating ideal conditions for fattening fish caught through the sluice gates. Considered the wao akua (realm of the gods), the highlands were off limits to all but those with knowledge of forest management.
“The important thing to understand about Ahupua’a is that water is an organizing principle,” said Davianna Pōmaikaʻi McGregor, professor of ethnic studies and director of the Oral History Center at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. “In Hawaiian, our word for water is wa’i, and our word for wealth is wa’i vai, because if water was plentiful, your land was rich and your food was plentiful.”
In the community of Hā’ena on the remote northwest tip of Kauai, decades of efforts to protect and restore one of the last remaining examples of complete ahupua’a are paying off. Limahuli Park and Preserve, part of Hā’ena, now has 600 acres of restored agricultural terraces. Hui Maka’āinana o Makana, a local community group that includes many descendants of Hā’ena’s original families, rebuilt taro ponds and revived traditional mountain-to-sea land management, while also establishing a state-sanctioned, community-based marine fishery. .
In the process, Hā’ena became a model for efforts to protect existing ahupua’a throughout the islands and restore others long since destroyed by pineapple plantations and cattle ranches.
“The Apuhua’a system was very holistic, thinking of the ecology of the entire watershed, the agricultural land and the fishery as one place,” said Limahuli Garden & Preserve director Lei Wann, a descendant of one of the original Ha’ena families. “It’s the way we’ve managed our resources for hundreds of years, and now we’re getting to see how well they understand and care for their environment with what’s left of us today.”
On the islands, bold and diverse coalitions of community activists, scientists and environmentalists are working with state government, the parks service and private landowners to restore traditional sustainable practices. Efforts that have earned them international acclaim are transforming them into modern environments—a major goal in a US state that now infamously imports 85% of its food.
“Ahupua’a is a guide map to see the Hawaiian Islands from a completely traditional Hawaiian perspective, taking you back thousands of years and giving you the insights of the people who lived there and governed this land throughout that time.” said chief scientist Sam ‘Ohu Gon. “It’s a gateway to all past knowledge that’s completely applicable today.”
In fact, Gon says, the ahupua’a system, also called moku, could model a way to feed and sustain Earth’s rapidly growing population in the face of climate change. “With these intensively managed farming and fishing systems, Hawaiians have been able to maintain a remarkably small ecological footprint using less than 15% of their terrestrial ecosystem, while supporting several hundred thousand people with no outside access,” he said.
The scientists used spatial distribution models to calculate the potential past production and distribution capacity of these ahupua’a, then assessed their future potential factoring in modern land use and a range of future climate scenarios. They found that these production levels could meet the demands of Hawaiian consumption today. In 2018, the United Nations selected Hawaii to be a Local 2030 Sustainability Hub, an honor that recognizes the strength of the state’s community-driven organizing efforts and its potential to serve as a model for others.
On every Hawaiian island, projects are underway to restore native species, reforest upland areas destroyed by grazing, restore estuaries, restore taro fields and fishponds, and protect ocean fisheries. While development in most areas prevents the recreation of an entire ahupua’a system, new plaque projects mark historic ahupua’a boundaries, raising awareness of the holistic system.
“We identify communities with long-term connections to land and sea, then work with them to combine the best of science and the best of local community methods,” Ghohn said. “Hawaiian culture has been actively suppressed, so it’s always a joy to find enclaves where traditional knowledge is still alive.”
A key force in this knowledge exchange is Kuaʻāina Ulu ʻAuamo (KUA), an Oahu-based nonprofit organization that acts as a vineyard connecting indigenous people and local natural resource management initiatives on the islands. Through a network of fishpond restoration practitioners, coalitions like Hui Malama Loko I’a, KUA helps organizers share methods, strategies and ideas.
“The idea is that when you have grassroots communities doing these projects, people start to see the positive effects and want to bring these changes to their communities,” said KUA director Kevin Chang.
KUA’s most high-profile successes have resulted from efforts to establish Community-Based Subsistence Fisheries Management Areas (CBSMA), which give coastal communities primary responsibility for setting fishing regulations that can exclude commercial fishing. This is a movement that has grown rapidly in recent years. “Each unique community has traditions and practices about how they fish and manage their fisheries, and we know that natural resource management is most effective when local power is vested directly in people who trust and understand the resource.” Chang.
While some may not think of ocean fishing as an element of land stewardship, according to Wann, it was exactly the case with ahupua. “Taking care of the land means your ocean will be healthier, and part of ahupua includes practices of using resources to make the ocean richer, and that’s what we’re still doing today in the 21st century—we’ve never stopped.”
Ground initiatives are also gaining momentum. One of Gon’s favorite examples is the Auwahi Forest Restoration Project, a partnership between a local community and one of Maui’s largest farming families, working parcel by parcel to restore upland areas on the slopes of Haleakala volcano that have been destroyed by cattle grazing since 1997. “It started as a small unit surrounded by blown-up lawns, and now it’s so successful that you can see the forest from space,” Ghosn said.
Visitors can learn about the ahupua’a renaissance at a growing number of parks, botanical gardens and preserves. Ahupuaʻa ʻO Kahana State Park preserves 5,300 acres on Oahu’s east side, from the 2,670-foot summit of the Ko’olau Mountains to Kahana Bay. Waimea Valley, a park best known for its roaring waterfall, is also home to the venerable ahupua’a restoration. On the island of Hawaii, the Amy BH Greenwell Ethonobotanical Garden preserves the archaeological remains of the ahupua’a terraces.
“There’s a new generation that understands the importance of doing this kind of cultivation and reclaiming their heritage from their ancestors,” McGregor said. “Many have come because students are relearning our Hawaiian language and they want to strengthen their connections through land stewardship.”
Visitors to Hawaii also have an important role in the renaissance of ahupua’a, Wann said, with initiatives that create new ways for visitors to learn about traditional agriculture and fisheries management, as well as limiting access to resource conservation. In Hā’ena, for example, a new permit system launched in 2019 limits the number of visitors to Hā’ena State Park and the Kalalau Trail to 900 people per day, requiring advance reservations for entry.
“Often people think of the ahupua’a system as something of the past, but we’re definitely becoming more aware of it as something that can be a part of Hawaiian society today,” Wann said. “We are creating ahupua’a for the 21st century.”