Keepers of the Forest

Native Hawaiian practitioner gives cultural orientation to invasive species workers.   

By Melissa Kelsey

In a remote gulch of north central Molokai, a local Hawaiian woman spoke to a clump of albizia trees, the kind of large, lanky trees from the movie “Jurassic Park.”

“We thank you for what you have provided to the forest, but you are not native,” she communicated to them. “It is time for you to go.”

Mikiala Pescaia warned the trees that malihini (foreigners) were coming to the gulch to end their life because they are not native to Molokai.

Pescaia and her family are among native Hawaiian caretakers of the land where the approximately 800 albizia trees grow. In fact, they have been taking care of this land long before the trees first arrived in Hawaii and began to flourish in the Molokai forest. Thanks to knowledge passed down orally through her family, Pescaia is aware that a path spirits use to travel from this world to the next runs right through the patch of albizia trees, making the gulch sacred for Hawaiians. The problem is that albizia trees are also a fast-growing invasive species that threaten to take over native varieties and disrupt the delicate balance of wildlife in the forest, according to Pescaia.    

The Molokai subcommittee of the Maui Invasive Species Committee (MoMISC) spearheaded a project to remove the trees from the gulch last March. But before planning the project, MoMISC consulted with native Hawaiian cultural practitioners who live in the area, according to Lori Buchanan, the organization’s Field and Outreach Coordinator.

“MoMISC is different in the sense that we always check for cultural significance before starting projects,” said Buchanan. “We want to know every piece of the big-picture conservation puzzle.”

Buchanan said MoMISC started by asking native Hawaiians living in the area whether or not they supported the project. After they came to an agreement, Pescaia began planning a cultural orientation for the site workers, who were mostly non-Hawaiians coming from off-island. Pescaia wanted the workers to learn native Hawaiian protocol, as well as the cultural meaning of the site. Pescaia explained that just as it is important to give an orientation for physical safety, it is also important to give an orientation for cultural and spiritual safety.

Since it was not possible to explain the breadth of cultural traditions to the workers, Pescaia and others followed protocol themselves, communicating the project with the trees. Pescaia pointed out that because plants came to the earth before humans in Hawaiian tradition, the Biblical account of creation and modern evolutionary theory, people holding a wide range of beliefs should show respect for their life.   

 In a cultural training session that took four to five hours, Pescaia taught the workers several elements of Hawaiian protocol. She gave them instructions like never unnecessarily move rocks or other objects because they hold cultural significance, and out of respect, refrain from swearing and smoking.

“The group was very receptive to the cultural instruction and there was a positive outcome,” said Pescaia. “It was really easy for them to understand the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of the guidelines.” 

After the orientation, it took two days for the crew to finish the work. The albizia trees were growing so close to each other that they could not be cut down, according to Buchanan. So instead, workers cut rings of bark off of each tree to create an exposed section of the tree called a “girdle.” Then the crew put a non-restricted use herbicide on the girdles to slowly kill the trees. To reach trees in precarious locations, field workers repelled down the steep sides of the gulch.

Buchanan expects the current undergrowth of Formosan koa, fiddlewood and ironwood to flourish as a result of increased sunlight after the albizia trees are gone. Workers also spread a mix of native seeds in the area that included kawelu, aweoweo and a`ali`i amongst the native `olena and ferns already growing in the area. 

A variety of professionals contributed to the project, such as workers from the Maui Invasive Species Committee, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, The Nature Conservancy and Molokai volunteers.

“It does not happen frequently, but I would like to see more projects on Molokai incorporate Hawaiian culture and protocol,” Buchanan said.


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