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Plantation Capitalism’s Legacy Produced the Maui Wildfires


Uʻilani Tanigawa Lum (@uilanitanigawa) is an Assistant Professor of Law, Co-Director of the Native Hawaiian Rights Clinic, and affiliated with the Ka Huli Ao Center for Excellence in Native Hawaiian Law at the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.

Kaulu Luʻuwai is a Post-JD Legal Fellow at the Ka Huli Ao Center for Excellence in Native Hawaiian Law at the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.

Growing up on the slopes of Haleakalā, Maui, the daily commute to town involved driving down the single-laned highway encircled by cane fields as far as the eye could see. Similar views were common on weekend adventures to beaches or streams throughout Maui. Before the sugar mills shut down for good in 2016, schoolchildren knew it was harvesting day when a blanket of charred cane leaves would settle on playgrounds and kids would dance in falling ash—the closest thing to regular snowfall in Hawaiʻi. Snaking along the infamous “Road to Hāna” on the east side of the island, water could be seen rushing downstream on the ma uka (mountain) side of a bridge and completely dry on the other side. Teenagers’ first jobs were harvesting in the pineapple fields. As children, plantation life permeated our daily activities, so much so that many never questioned the concrete dams and grates lining our waterways. They were perfect jumping-off points in streams that still had enough water for swimming. We were not aware that these diversions were sucking our streams dry and emblematic of the larger war over ʻāina (land), wai (water), and inevitably, power, on our island home.

In the wake of fires that ravaged the historic town of Lahaina in August 2023, the public began questioning how a tragedy of this magnitude could have occurred. Drought conditions paired with high winds were the immediate cause of the inferno. Yet the colonial history in Hawaiʻi reveals a more insidious, human-caused, explanation for this disaster: a pervasive and unsustainable system of extraction exacerbated by the climate crisis. On Maui, the roots of injustice are shrouded in the legacy of plantation capitalism, perpetuated today by a shameless new wave of disaster capitalism.

The Harms of Plantations on Maui

Although sugar plantations first emerged on Maui in the 1840s, proliferation spiked with the establishment of Pioneer Mill in 1860 in Lahaina, Wailuku Sugar Company in 1862 in central Maui, Alexander and Baldwin Plantation in 1870 on the northern slope of Haleakalā, and Hawaiian Commercial Co. in 1878, also in central Maui, all founded by haole (foreign) capitalists. At their peak, these companies had the potential to collectively take roughly 1,200 million gallons of water per day across the islands, enough to fill over 2,400 Olympic-sized swimming pools, for their sugar lands.

Throughout Maui, plantation capitalism not only affected Kānaka Maoli (indigenous population to Hawaiʻi), but drastically altered the natural ecosystem, disrupting, or completely replacing, intricate biocultural resource systems that sustained life in the middle of the Pacific Ocean for millennia. Diverse areas of vegetation that had uniquely adapted to Hawaiʻi’s climate were plowed flat to prepare for planting. To manufacture the perfect conditions for sustaining sugarcane in the late nineteenth century, American-owned foreign corporations constructed extensive irrigation systems designed to extract as much water as possible from wet areas of the island to arid fields.

Foreign agribusinesses seemingly had no concept of or concern for environmental stewardship. Instead, they modeled the exploitative character of American capitalism. They diverted water outside of the watershed of origin, causing a vicious cycle of worsening drought conditions below diversion points that attracted less moisture to the fire area over time with the decrease in greenery. Moreover, the dewatering of rivers and streams decimated the once vibrant Native stream life, which required continuous flow from the mountains to the sea.

Kānaka Maoli suffered in tandem with the natural resources. The dewatering of Lahaina’s streams devastated traditional and customary practices upon which Kānaka Maoli relied, redefining life on our island. For example, Kānaka Maoli no longer had sufficient water to farm kalo (also known as taro), the main staple crop of Kānaka Maoli society. Along with sweeping land dispossession, the sugar industry’s methods compromised the ecosystem that Kānaka Maoli saw as familial and inseparable from themselves and which they symbiotically relied on for sustenance and survival.

Historical accounts from this era illustrate the chilling effect plantation water diversions had on native tenants and the environment throughout Maui. In 1866, only four years after the first plantation in the region emerged, one kānaka maoli wrote to a newspaper about the Maui town of Wailuku. The newspaper said that the man warned, “Despair! Wailuku Is Being Destroyed By The Sugar Plantation” and that “the land of Wailuku is being lost due to the cultivation of sugarcane . . . . [T]he current condition of once cultivated taro patches [is] being dried up by the foreigners, where they are now planting sugarcane.”

Dried taro patches and increased sugar cultivation contributed to widespread famine by the mid-nineteenth century. A government committee tasked with identifying the root cause of famine in Maui Komohana (West Maui) in 1867 attributed this debacle to the rising influence of sugar in the area. Pioneer Mill, like most plantations at the time, was diverting so much water in the area that arable land not used to grow sugar dried up. This marked the transition from a subsistence to cash-crop economy, forcing the population to work on the plantations to pay for, rather than cultivate, their food. In turn, subsistence farming plummeted, virtually dismantling the local food system and requiring the importation of food from other regions in Hawaiʻi. The trend of dependence on imported goods has only worsened since, as Hawaiʻi currently imports upwards of 85 percent of its food.

Sugar even played a central role in the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom. Hawaiʻi sugar plantations benefitted from a treaty between Hawaiʻi and the United States that allowed sugar to be imported to Americans tariff-free. However, when the McKinley administration allowed all foreign sugar to enter the U.S. duty-free, while also subsidizing U.S.-made sugar, the Hawaiʻi sugar industry suffered. Thus, the only apparent way for Hawaiʻi sugar to secure a portion of the American market was for Hawaiʻi to become part of the United States. In 1893, foreign businessmen, many with significant interests in the sugar industry, illegally overthrew Queen Liliʻuokalani and the Hawaiian Kingdom.

Sugar Plantations’ Lingering Consequences

What happened in Maui Komohana was not a natural disaster. Instead, it was the consequence of over 150 years of rapacious land and natural resource management practices. Sugar continued to cause widespread cultural and environmental damage on the once-thriving island community until it was surpassed by tourism in the 1960s. While the physical infrastructure of smoke stacks and cement flumes are remnants of the injustices during the plantation era, the legacy corporations of these plantations maintain their chokehold on our island.

The perversion of Maui Komohana’s topography beginning in the plantation era primed the town for this disaster. Streams and other water bodies in Maui Komohana that have been diverted serve as natural firebreaks that could have impeded the spread of flames on August 8th. For example, before the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, Mokuhinia was a 17-acre inland pond centrally located in Lahaina town. As plantations diverted all the stream water that fed the pond, Mokuhinia became a swamp and was eventually filled in by the new American-led Hawaiian government concerned about the resulting public health risks of stagnant water. And, while the above-ground utilities caused the first sparks that lit the matchbox of Lahaina, the tinder that fueled the spread of the fire was caused by large swaths of unmaintained, dried lands that were razed of their biodiversity to make way for sugar and are now wrought with invasive grasses.

In Maui Komohana, the plantations continued to profit from their extractive methods long after sugar cultivation stopped by selling plantation lands and water systems for luxury development or resorts. Today, the majority of Maui Komohana’s water systems are privately owned and operated for development- or tourism-serving corporations, which control more than seventy-five percent of Maui Komohana’s water through systems constructed during the plantation era. While there are standards in place to ensure that a sufficient amount of water remains in streams and in aquifers to protect legally defined and enumerated public trust purposes such as stream life, traditional and customary Native Hawaiian practices, domestic uses, and appurtenant rights, these standards have not been consistently and strictly regulated in accordance with the law. Private water purveyors continue to take water without regard to downstream users and without reprimand.

Repeated abuse of water by plantation legacy-corporations has also had detrimental effects on Maui Komohana. The small number of families in rural areas of the region that have withstood the effects of the plantation era struggle to maintain their lifeways. The lack of stream water has left them without reliable water sources for domestic uses and the perpetuation of traditional and customary practices such as kalo cultivation. In turn, many have moved away from their ancestral lands and have lost opportunities to pass down traditional ecological knowledge to the next generation. Meanwhile, the lack of water flow continues to stifle stream life, provide less surface water to sustainably recharge the aquifer that wells draw from, and disrupt ecologically-essential estuaries.

Economically, the tourism industry has mirrored and reinforced the legacy of plantation capitalism through power structures that persist in disenfranchising Kānaka Maoli and other marginalized immigrant communities living in Hawaiʻi, such as Lahaina’s large Filipino population. The now-essential tourism industry that replaced the plantations as the main employer in the region offers predominantly low-wage jobs to migrant workers and locals with few high-paying alternatives or potential for upward mobility. This class dynamic played out during and after the fires. Prior to August 8th almost one in three Lahaina residents were born outside of Hawaiʻi and the United States. With most jobs in the service industry, the median per-capita income in Lahaina was under $31,000 a year. The Filipino community in particular was significantly hurt. Filipinos, many of whom are immigrants, comprised as much as forty percent of the Lahaina population at the time of the fires and were known for pooling their resources and living in multigenerational homes to afford Maui’s high cost of living. After the fires, many Filipinos lost homes, important documents, and struggled to navigate disaster recovery services due to language barriers. Moreover, Filipinos had difficulty finding and affording rentals to accommodate their larger-than-average multigenerational household sizes, due to inflated rental prices.

As Lahaina residents attempted to recover from their preexisting precarity, Governor Josh Green forced the reopening of Maui Komohana to tourism less than two months after the fire despite overwhelming opposition. Anxious about persisting mortgages on homes that no longer existed, basic survival, and job security, still-grieving and largely houseless fire victims returned to work to serve tourists as the 2023 holiday season approached.

The Fight Continues

Maui is at a crucial turning point in the genealogy of wai and power. The historic fires underscore the need for radical change. Our communities have been rallying for the restoration of lands and natural resources for decades to combat historic social injustices and the impending climate crisis. Will Maui continue to accommodate the exploitative tourism and development industries that paved the way for this calamity? Will we allow that dynamic to double-down and proceed with plantation disaster capitalism? Or will we have the courage to radically re-examine socio-environmental injustices, including water management?

Efforts to confront plantation capitalism and return Maui’s streams to the glory and abundance once enjoyed by the Kānaka Maoli of generations’ past have been extensive. Volunteer community groups have slogged through administrative hurdles, protracted litigation, and public education efforts that have spanned decades. For example, East Maui’s fight for stream restoration began in 2001, while Central Maui’s battle started in 2004. Both cases still have pending matters before Hawaiʻi courts. Reflecting on the systemic issues that stripped water from the Maui community, Earthjustice attorney Isaac Moriwake emphasized the “historic opportunity” we have to restore streamflow following the plantations’ closures on Maui–an opportunity that may only happen once in a century.

As kupa and attorneys who call Maui our home, we feel the kuleana (responsibility and privilege) to scrutinize the systems of injustice in which we have been raised, to critically examine how the law has been manipulated to uphold unjust systems, and to challenge how the law can be transformed to restore justice. While we grapple with the Lahaina disaster and follow the kamaʻāina (local)-led path to recovery, this historic moment calls us to confront our colonial past in order to envision a future for our island and generations to come. We foretell the historical abundance encapsulated in our mele (songs), moʻolelo (stories), and hula (dance). Instead of schoolchildren playing in monthly showers of ash, we imagine them resting in the shade of the famed ʻulu groves. Instead of jumping off of concrete stream diversions, we picture kamaʻāina stacking pōhaku (rocks) to supply water to the intricate network of loʻi kalo throughout our communities. We see a future that prioritizes the ʻāina (lands and natural resources) over status quo privately-owned systems and water features to enchant tourists; a future where kamaʻāina are no longer disproportionately subject to environmental hazards and injustices but partner with the government to steward a more just Hawaiʻi nei. Ola i ka wai, ola i ka malu ʻulu o Lele (Water is life and may the groves of ʻulu that shade Lele Lahaina live on)!