La`au Point OCCUPIED: Molokai Anti-development group digs in for the long haul

In an act reminiscent of Kaho`olawe-era protests, a new generation of Molokai activists have set the stage for an extended occupation of La`au point, an area that would be sold as a luxury subdivision under the Molokai Ranch’s “Community Based Master Land Use Plan.” Supplied by a small flotilla of fishing boats, over 50 people spent shifts building a Hawaiian hale on this contested land over the last week.

The hale will serve as base camp for the opposition movement and will be the final destination of a community protest march planned for Oct. 7. Activists plan to practice subsistence hunting and gathering for the duration of their indefinite stay. Their slice of land has been nicknamed Shipwreck Beach after a marooned sailboat half-buried in sand 30 feet ashore.

“We want to do the things we’ve been saying we must do if we are to keep our culture – our families – alive,” said Walter Ritte, an opposition leader who has spent the past 30 years fighting development on Molokai. “We stopped the bombing of Kaho`olawe, we stopped the cruise ships and we will stop gentlemen’s estates from going up at La`au.

“This occupation is a tactic for the warriors. I am hoping that this becomes for the young people here what the land use battles of the 70s were to us.”

Members of the group Hui Ho`opakele `Aina had been harvesting mangrove and bamboo for the past several weeks in preparation for the event. But when it came time to break ground on the La`au Point Hale, Ritte says he shunned the idea of a set strategy. “You can plan these things but they’re going to have a life of their own.” La`au means plant in the Hawaiian language, and Ritte says the hale suits the name. “This is our plant right here,” he said. “This is our seed. The people of Molokai are the ones who will decide what happens to it.”

The occupation planners did their best to make sure the stars were aligned in their favor: Aunty Clara Ku, one of the strongest elders in the effort to stop “friendly fire” test-bombing on Kaho`olawe and leader of a six-hour access march from Mo`omomoi to Kawakeu believed 13 was a lucky number – every major opposition move of that era happened on the 13th. “So what if it’s the middle of the week?” said Ritte. “If we go on the 13th, Auntie Clara will be with us.”

In a stroke of good fortune the north and south swell lulled simultaneously on the big day and the loading and unloading efforts went smoothly. But it was the arrival of a “busload of young, strong fishermen” that made construction efforts possible, according to Ritte, who was thrilled to see that the original occupation crew was not just the usual suspects.

“We’ve been going to meetings for two years, talking and talking. I never saw these guys at the meetings, but when the 13th arrived, they were here. These are the guys who actually spend time in La`au, and they were the only ones who could have pulled this off.” The men are calling themselves “frontliners” and they spent much of the first day chasing sinking mangrove logs to the bottom of the sea. The occupation organizers had brought ropes and floats and hoped for the best, but the effort came down to the strength and skill of the Molokai boys who had grown up in the water. “They don’t realize how amazing their skills are,” Ritte said.

MPL CEO Peter Nicholas and MPL Community Affairs Manager John Sabas organized a Hawaiians-only meeting between the ranch’s “employee’s council” and the occupation crew the day before groundbreaking, but the meeting ended in a stalemate. The groups agreed to disagree.

Molokai Ranch has made no physical attempt to stop the occupation. At press time activists and visitors were moving in and out of the camp freely despite “No trespassing” signs dotting a well-defined trail to La`au. A 1.5 hour hike from the hale leads to Dixie Maru Beach, the nearest place to park.

Locals call La`au “the icebox” for its abundant game and proximity to the Penguin Banks, the best fishing area on the island. Ancient burial grounds and other important archaeological sites give another nickname – “the leaping place of spirits.” Kaipo Kekona of Maui, who traveled to the occupation site from Maui in an outrigger sailing canoe, said developers must not understand the significance of the area. “If they try to take La`au then they have a lot more coming to them – physically and spiritually – than they could ever know.”

Molokai Hawaiian Homesteaders and other supporters of the vocal “Save La`au” movement also say that the Molokai Ranch’s development plan will threaten their limited water supply and devastate important cultural resources on the only island where native Hawaiians still have a majority.

Molokai Ranch insists that the land use plan was developed in collaboration with the Molokai community and that it is a socially and culturally responsible project. Indeed, the development comes with several incentives for the community, including an offer to preserve nearly 55,000 acres of as a community-based land trust and a promise to revamp and reopen the old Kaluakoi Hotel.

MPL worked with the Molokai Enterprise Community (EC) to involve the community in building the plan. It was later approved by a volunteer committee in a 19-to-6 vote. Some longtime anti-development activists are even on board, including EC director and OHA trustee Collette Machado, who calls the plan “a realistic settlement of a thirty-year struggle.” John Sabas, who led activist efforts in his youth, now works for Molokai Ranch as its Community Affairs Manager.

Land Use attorney Isaac Hall, who once defended the anti-La`au group Hui Ho`opakele `Aina in a successful battle to stop the development of a high-end country club on the ranch’s lands above Kualapu`u, is now representing the ranch in regards to its Master Plan. He believes the master plan has broad support and “offers more to the community than the land use struggles that have been going on for years.”

But Steve Morgan, who played an instrumental role in the La`au Point occupation at Shipwreck Beach, said Molokai does not want to sacrifice some land to preserve other land. They want to preserve all of it – and they will stop at nothing to do so. He noted that for the past 30 years no developer has managed to touch the land offered to the trust, and that anyone who tried would have to go through the same difficult land use process that the ranch is going through now.

“The ranch knows they could never develop on those lands,” he said. “That’s why they’re offering them up.” He added that the size of the offer means that Molokai’s refusal to accept the deal will set a precedent. “It will tell them whether we will compromise who we are.”

Ritte, who has in the past fought alongside those who now support the Master Plan, says that some of Molokai’s activists have bowed to political pressure that encourages compromise and that others simply do not trust the next generation to carry on the battle. “In order for the activists to come to a split, people have to be tired of fighting,” Ritte said on the first day of La`au occupation. “But anyone who doesn’t think the young people here have what it takes to continue our battle should have been out here this morning. If they could have seen the commitment, the pure energy of the young guys who came out here today, they’d be changing their tune.

Spirits are high at Shipwreck Beach, where activists have seen a steady flow of supporters hike in to bring supplies and lend a hand. Just before setting up camp at La`au, Ritte spent a day at the UH Law School consulting lawyers Denise Antolini and Casey Jarman who have agreed to help Hui Ho`opakele Aina and say there will be opportunities for legal intervention at three levels in the state approval process the ranch must pass to develop the land. Appeals could stop the process for several years or more. “At this point it would be a miracle if the ranch’s plan goes through,” said Ritte. “If we don’t win on the home turf, then we’ll win in the courts.”


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