Molokai: Model of Sustainability

Community members explore the options.

By Catherine Cluett

Molokai is a place full of strong opinions and occasional disagreements. But who can argue that we need food? The thought of “what if the barge doesn’t come?” is a reoccurring concern for many. The question of food security held top priority last week at a meeting of Hui Ho`opakele Aina, a group dedicated to creating a sustainable Molokai.

The meeting was attended by over three dozen Molokai residents. A variety of speakers addressed issues such as food shortages and solutions, education, and community development. Experts, as well as community members already active in the effort, shared their knowledge and experience with an attentive audience.

Glenn Teves is a University of Hawaii Extension Agent who specializes in community development. “Hawaiians produce less than 20% of the food we eat,” he said. “And 95% of Hawaii’s agriculture is non-food crops.” He gave a bleak picture of the state’s current resource insecurity, explaining that almost all assets such as airports and power plants are located on the coastlines – in danger zones for tsunamis and other natural disasters.

“There is little agriculture infrastructure compared to tourism infrastructure in Hawaii,” Teves said. He emphasized the need to create an infrastructure for local farmers to successfully sell their produce on-island, instead of relying on off-island business. He also suggested crop diversification and the production of local fertilizers as examples of ways to improve Molokai’s agricultural assets.

But it isn’t all doom and gloom for Molokai, according to Teves. He pointed out that the island already boasts some of the state’s biggest organic farms.

Ag Extension agent Alton Arakaki calls Molokai a “just in time community,” indicating its high dependence on a weekly barge for its food supply. Arakaki suggested a greater emphasis on forestry should be a priority on the island. Seed-saving would be another important step for Molokai, according to Arakaki. “We could start developing varieties unique to Molokai,” he says.

Kali Arce, a UH Extension Agent, educates Molokai students at Kualapu`u School through a variety of gardening programs. The school has gardens on campus for students to plant, care for, and harvest their crops. Keiki learn about growing and marketing their vegetables, and the program also allows parents and teachers to participate in the learning and gardening process.

Karen Holt of the Molokai Community Service Council pointed to the revival of Kaunakakai as an achievable goal toward a better future. She said the cleanup of the old Molokai Electric Plant site would play a key role in this effort. A revamp of the structure would make room for such attractions as an art studio, coffee shop, bowling alley (there’s no place to go on a date on Molokai, she explains), and craft market. She adds that site cleanup and construction would create about 35 jobs.

As for Molokai becoming a model of sustainability, Molokai resident and filmmaker Matt Yamashita brought a winning combination of enthusiasm and concrete ideas. Starting with one ahupua’a as a test site, Molokai could build a community model of sustainability that would combine forward-thinking modern technologies and techniques with ancient Hawaiian cultures and values, he said. In partnership with Kamehameha Schools and independent financers, Molokai could build an education-driven model that would bring to life a community vision.

Harmonee Williams, a community planner on Molokai, is ready to start putting the pieces together. But, she says, in order to move toward a vision, we need to know where we stand currently. Toward this goal, she will be spearheading a comprehensive, island-wide assessment of current status and production capacities. A professor at University of Hawaii may also be bringing his planning class to Molokai in the spring semester to assist with the project.

“Tough times are coming,” said Molokai resident and activist Walter Ritte. “We need to switch from defensive to offensive.”

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