A nonprofit is reviving ancestral traditions to feed the He‘eia community in both body and spirit
Located on the lush east side of O‘ahu, the ahupua‘a of He‘eia was particularly rich with this precious resource. Native inhabitants learned to harness He‘eia’s plentiful rainfall and freshwater streams by constructing loko i‘a (fish ponds) along the coast and lo‘i kalo (taro patches) in the inland valleys and flatlands, which acted as retention basins that improved watershed recharge and made He‘eia one of the most agriculturally productive regions on the island.
Though life in the islands revolves around the ocean, it is wai, or freshwater, that Native Hawaiians consider a gift from the gods. Prior to the Great Māhele in 1848, when Hawai‘i’s lands were redistributed in accordance with Western-style private property ownership, the islands were divided into ahupua‘a, wedge-shaped districts whose bounds were dictated by the flow of freshwater from the mountains to the sea. So intimately aware were Native Hawaiians of the vital role of freshwater in Hawai‘i’s island ecology that all aspects of traditional Hawaiian society were rooted in the understanding that ola i ka wai, or “water is life.”
Taro was the dominant crop in He‘eia for much of its recorded history until the 1940s, when land-use changes transformed He‘eia’s fertile marshland into fallow pastures. After a sprawling residential development was proposed for the area in the 1990s, it seemed He‘eia would never return to its former abundance. Met with fierce opposition from the He‘eia community, however, the proposal was dropped, and the land once again sat idle for decades.
By that point, the delicate ecological balance of He‘eia’s adjacent Kāne‘ohe Bay had fallen into disarray. The region’s fallow lands were ineffective at retaining water and filtering debris, encouraging terrestrial runoff and offshore sedimentation. Invasive algae introduced to Kāne‘ohe Bay in the ’70s proliferated unchecked, choking out the bay’s coral reefs. Non-native mangrove planted in He‘eia in the 1920s to mitigate flooding and control erosion also propagated rapidly along the coast, wreaking havoc on the bay’s marine ecosystem.
“As young kids, we grew up driving past this area with a really large mangrove—they called it the ‘stink bridge,’” says Jonathan Kanekoa Kukea-Schultz, recalling the forests of dense mangrove that grew so thick along the bridge traversing He‘eia Stream that it obstructed views of Kāne‘ohe Bay on one side and the emerald walls of the Ko‘olau mountain range on the other. Schultz traveled the bridge often during his time running Paepae o He‘eia, a nonprofit he co-founded in 2001 to restore He‘eia Fishpond, the second largest of at least 20 ingeniously engineered Native Hawaiian fishponds that once thrived in Kāne‘ohe Bay. Over the course of his years working with Paepae o He‘eia and later as a phychologist and marine conservation coordinator with The Nature Conservancy, it became clear to Schultz that to address the bay’s ecological challenges at the source, efforts also needed to be directed upstream.
With support from The Nature Conservancy, Schultz took on the role of executive director of the nonprofit Kāko‘o ‘Ōiwi, an organization that in 2010 was granted a 38-year lease by the Hawai‘i Community Development Authority to transform a 405-acre parcel in the He‘eia wetlands into a productive agricultural and cultural district. For Schultz, that meant returning much of the land back into lo‘i kalo, both to provide the community with a nutrient-dense food source and to revitalize an effective form of resource management—something Schultz believes the kūpuna (elders) of He‘eia understood intimately when they first developed the land for taro cultivation.
Kāko‘o ‘Ōiwi’s lei-making workshops are an invitation to deepen one’s connection with the land.
After years of disuse, there was much to be done before replanting could begin: divert water into the original ‘auwai (canals) that irrigated the area’s former network of taro patches, clear the land of invasive vegetation, rehabilitate the soil. To get it done, Kāko‘o ‘Ōiwi turned to the community for help, hosting volunteer workdays in which members of the He‘eia community and beyond could take part in the restoration effort and, in doing so, forge a closer relationship to the land. “It’s important that we have non-farmers coming in to work the land because non-farmers are part of our food system too,” Schultz says, explaining that in addition to helping tend the lo‘i, students and visitors are invited to Kāko‘o ‘Ōiwi to learn the history of He‘eia and the cultural and spiritual practices of those who historically inhabited it; to wander along paths newly lined with flowering plants and fruit-bearing trees like ‘ulu (breadfruit) and mai‘a (banana); and to gather seasonal blooms from an agroforest that Kāko‘o ‘Ōiwi named Pu‘ulani, referring to a spiritual ridge between generations past, present, and future.
“When we planted Pu‘ulani, the intention was for it to be a place that feeds us in spirit,” says Kāko‘o ‘Ōiwi’s lo‘i manager, Mahealani Botelho. “Meaning we planted things that could be used for medicine, hula, building hale (houses), and lei making.” Raised in a family of lei makers, Botelho remembers asking her aunt how to improve her lei-making skills, to which her aunt replied: Have a relationship with the ‘āina (land). Taking that advice to heart, a mo‘olelo (legend) Botelho often shares with visitors today is about the name behind He‘eia’s valley of ʻIolekaʻa, Hawaiian for “rolling rat.” As the legend goes, the rats of the Ko‘olau mountains were fed up with rats from elsewhere on the island stealing their food, so they tricked the other rats into rolling down the mountain to their deaths. “The Ko‘olau rats knew their ‘āina so well, they were able to protect it,” Botelho says. “If you know your ‘āina, then you can protect your resource.”
To that end, Kāko‘o ‘Ōiwi sees its mission as two-fold: feed the community and nurture its spirit. The hope is also that, in nourishing the land and people of He‘eia, the region will see a resurgence of native wildlife, including the endangered ‘alae ‘ula (Hawaiian moorhen) and ae‘o (Hawaiian stilt), whose presence signals an ecosystem in balance. “We want to continue doing what our ancestors told us to do,” Schultz says. “The sound of the birds—hearing those native systems is a way that our ancestors communicated with us in the past, and it’s how our ancestors are communicating with us now.”
In restoring the wetlands of He‘eia, Kāko‘o ‘Ōiwi is helping to rehabilitate the native wildlife that once flourished there.
“If you know your ‘āina (land), then you can protect your resource,” says Kāko‘o ‘Ōiwi’s lo‘i manager, Mahealani Botelho.