Not unlike the deep respect for nature ingrained in Native American cultures, Hawaiians saw themselves as simply caretakers. ‘He ali’I no ka ‘aina, he hauva wale he kanaka’ – the land is chief; the human is but a servant. The Kamehameha Schools have committed their vast resources to maintaining this statement as a 21st century reality. Before the conquest of the kingdom, Hawaiians had developed a unique land management system known as the ahupua’a – from mountain to sea. Even today, rising to over 13,000 feet and sloping to sea level, the ecological diversity of Hawai’i is vast with over 10,000 species of plants and animals of which 90% are native only to the islands.
By vertically subdividing the island with this system, each population group had full benefit of the eco-systems, water and abundance from mountain forests to fertile valleys to the ocean. The ahupua’a system turned the islands into a giant box store providing all human needs. All that changed during the 19th and 20th centuries as western powers encroached and ultimately the United States conquered and annexed the islands. The private plantation system that replaced the ahupua’a mass-produced imported agricultural products such as pineapple, sugar cane, coffee and beef turning the islands into the net importer of everyday foodstuffs that it remains today. What was once a self-sustaining land of great diversity now imports 85 to 90 percent of its food products including Spam, chicken nuggets and fish sticks.
This transformation has not been an isolated incident but has swept the modern world, contributing greatly to the food crisis facing many regions, as agriculture is more dependent on artificial fertilizers, chemistry labs and fossil fuel energy than Mother Nature. Most people aware of this crisis are equally aware of the powerful backlash it has generated among those concerned both with the quality of modern foods and the havoc it has had on health. The back-to-the-land communes of the 1960s, the Slow Food and locavore movements, the controversy over genetic modification, increased demand for natural products and the proliferation of small farmers with a burgeoning number of farmers markets and restaurants eager for their products, are all part of a process of returning to a time when humans lived in harmony with the ‘aina – the Earth.
It’s ironic that going back to a natural past is expensive for both the farmer and the consumer with the result that for many in advanced countries, only the affluent can afford a healthy and diverse diet. Yet, like in ancient times when the common man, spirits and rulers maintained the natural balance, Hawai’i had a patroness whose will has reshaped the landscape. The vast legacy of Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop (1831-1884), last of the royal Kamehameha line, has provided the resources for the future of agricultural sustainability in Hawai’i.
Besides its primary directive, the operation of the Kamehameha Schools, the multibillion dollar trust fund created by Princess Bernice’s will and her American husband, banker Charles Bishop (1822 - 1915) has been focused on an ambitious agricultural initiative. Its goal is nothing less than the revival of the ahupua’a system by supporting small farmers leasing trust land, reversing the spiral of extinction threatening too many native species of plants and animals and, in the process, preserving the Hawaiian identity.
Considering the Kamehameha Schools are the largest private landowner in the islands with over 365,000 acres, its mission is not a pipe dream. In combination with the Hawai’i Regional Cuisine movement, started by a dozen chefs in the 1990s, the agricultural initiative and the farm-to-table movement on the island is more than just a marketing tool to promote choice restaurants. It is recreating a viable way of life.