Routed Through Water: Decolonial Ecologies on The Wai’anae Coast of Hawai’i



Through the example of the restored land and water Indigenous stewardship of Ka’ala Farm in Hawai’i, Laurel Mei-Singh shows how decolonial ecologies can be created and practiced despite the neighboring U.S. military highways and despite the water-stealing irrigation system implemented by settlers in the 19th century.

Mei Singh Funambulist
Plantation manager’s home with stolen water in the foreground, circa 1885. / Source: Hawai’i State Archives.

Mount Ka‘ala forms a majestic peak, the highest on the island of O‘ahu, where clouds cling from late morning onward during the dry season and throughout most of the rainy season. Cradled below her steep ridges on a lush hillside in Wai‘anae Valley, Ka‘ala Farm offers a place of thriving Indigenous environmental regeneration through collective stewardship, a decolonial ecology. From here one can see a wedge of the blue expanse of ocean while mist cools the air and offers respite from the brutal sun beating on the coastline. Lo‘i, irrigated terraces filled with kalo (taro) carrying flowing water, generate life and wealth for the community. Located 29 miles west of the urban metropolis of Honolulu, Wai‘anae is a place of vibrant environmental regeneration where people come together to counter living histories of colonial dispossession.

Along the shoreline that skirts the Wai‘anae Coast, a contrasting story of environmental degradation is also present. Massive U.S. military bases, a power plant, a waste treatment plant, fast food chains, strip malls with copious parking, and churches pepper the highway that winds along the coastline. While the highway grants breathtaking views of the ocean, numerous traffic fatalities along the roadway have given it a dangerous reputation. The highway severs beach access for pedestrians, who in most areas travel without sidewalks. Concrete traps rainwater in many waterways just before the anticipated return to the ocean, a product of water diversions from the plantation era and reduced rainfall from climate change. Fishers attribute this restricted water flow to the reduction of fish along the coastline. The transformation of entire ways of life has altered Native Hawaiian land tenure systems through displacement, the disruption of subsistence practices, and environmental degradation, forging colonial ecologies that collide with Ka‘ala Farm’s community-based efforts for decolonization and abundance.

The Wai‘anae Coast stretches for 17 miles between the Pacific Ocean and the Wai‘anae mountain range. Unless one is hiking, paddling, or has access to U.S. military roads, there is only one way in and one way out: the Farrington Highway. Because of the region’s location on the leeward side of the island, with two mountain ranges — the Ko‘olaus and Wai‘anae mountains — blocking wind and rain, some mistakenly naturalize the poverty in the region by attributing it to the dry and barren quality of the coastal areas. But people familiar with the place’s ecology and her history know better. Wai‘anae Coast holds lush mountains and valleys and receives more rain than the south-eastern portions of the island, areas with wealthy and upper middle class inhabitants. Wai‘anae Valley once had 30 springs in higher areas. This water flowed downstream to feed crops while fish that people cultivated in ponds ma kai (toward the ocean) fed much of the population. People with longstanding Wai‘anae connections share stories about their chiefs who rebelled, the arrival of sugar plantations that wrought the theft of water equating with the theft of wealth, and ongoing work to restore waterways, particularly the rebuilding of the ‘auwai (irrigation ditches) to feed lo‘i (taro terraces). These decolonial ecologies, routed through water, nurture and restore abundance while challenging the abandonment and toxicity that have also shaped their lives.

Over time, the forces of racial capitalism and U.S. military occupation have exploited these natural barriers to advance the Indigenous dispossession and hierarchies that have cast Wai‘anae’s land and people as disposable. Wai‘anae wage earners earn 20% less than the state average with poverty levels hovering near 20% and some census tracts exceeding 50%. The disparities have racial dimensions, as 68% of Wai‘anae residents are Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, as compared to 26% for the rest of the island. Some in Hawai‘i who do not hold personal connections to the region approach the area with exaggerated perceptions of Wai‘anae as a dangerous place. This combined with the actual experience of residents facing hours of traffic for daily commutes to the center of commerce in Honolulu have contributed to outsiders’ notion of the area as an undesirable place to live. At the same time, these barriers shield Wai‘anae from overdevelopment, opening vibrant pathways for decolonial ecologies that restore the web of systems that animate our vibrant and breathing worlds and re-shape how we, as humans, live within it.

Wai‘anae exemplifies the multiple paradoxes of de/colonial ecologies: love and scorn, care and neglect, and colonization and resistance. It is a place that demonstrates the centrality of environmental processes to Indigenous dispossession and racial hierarchies as well as grassroots efforts laying claim to healthy livelihoods and enacting self-determination.

Mei Singh Funambulist
Ka’ala Farm in the present day. / Photo by Scott Schimmel.

When I visited Ka‘ala Farm for the first time in 2014, co-founder and director, Eric Enos gestured to the lo‘i, ti plants, and an earthen oven encircled by the green peaks of mountains. “This is the future catching up to the past,” he said in lieu of hello. Eric shared his long-term vision for the place:

“The plan is to get families to grow their own food here. Lo’i kalo [taro grown in freshwater irrigation ditches], banana, ti leaf, […] So we are going to […] find the areas where the edible forest can survive, where nature provides some groundwater naturally […] where there’s a tree, there’s groundwater and dry areas. So what happens during the winter rains is how do you store the water, create the storage basins. Create the storage basins for when a rain so when the water rushes down […] if you put a water in ditches, [then we’ll have the] the lo’i pond.”

Eric outlines a vision premised on flowing water to facilitate collective economic practices that nurture the lifeways of Indigenous communities and human wellbeing for everyone. Eric recognizes the importance of wai (water) as a life source to guide stewardship and shape every aspect of land use planning. This restoration of lifeways breaks through the colonial ecologies that have cleaved apart places to reroute and restore the systems that nurture and sustain life.

Eric then offered a series of questions embedded in a critique of the alienation between humans and the environment evident in Wai‘anae’s planning while constructing a vision of connectivity with the natural world as the basis of community health. He described his work in neighboring Nānākuli, the area of Wai‘anae with the highest poverty rates and concentration of Native Hawaiians in Hawai‘i:

“You got to figure out how you going to neighborhoods, develop your backyard. Because that’s what you see every day. So where’s the walk paths in Nānākuli? Where are the bicycle paths in Nānākuli? Where are the safe places to walk in Nānākuli? Where is the edible forest in Nānākuli? Where is the beaches, where is the Koa? Where is our fishing grounds? Where’s the health of our limu (seaweed)?…The schools sit on the ocean, but their backs are to the ocean. They’re not bringing the ocean into the classroom.”

This encompassing vision of the environment — where we live, work, play, and learn — informs efforts to grow healthy food, build walking and bicycle paths, gain access to relevant ecological knowledge, and cultivate community. A sensible transportation infrastructure would offer alternatives to the unsustainable and atomizing car culture while facilitating socioecological connection as the source of well-being. Eric critiques planning paradigms that make it nearly impossible to walk or bike, the decimation of livelihoods, and an educational system that teaches ideas irrelevant to the surrounding aquatic environment. In its place, he advocates for the cultivation and restoration of Hawaiian land tenure systems that can nurture and sustain our lives in the modern world.

The work of Ka‘ala Farm transforms the environment, educates youth, and redistributes resources to promote environmental interdependence and restore community health while drawing from Hawaiian socioecological systems. They counter the uneven distribution of environmental goods by restoring the flow of water as a central feature of rebuilding Indigenous lifeways and enacting environmental interdependence to strengthen well-being. This work foregrounds the fact that the environment serves as the material foundations of settler colonialism, racism, and economic restructuring as they unfold and evolve over time.

Plantation agriculture indelibly reshaped Wai‘anae’s landscape. Hermann A. Widemann, a German-born, U.S.-trained businessman, judge and cabinet member of the Hawaiian Kingdom opened the Waianae Sugar Co in 1880, the first plantation on O‘ahu. Widemann hired artesian well digger and politician Link McCandless and McCandless’s brothers to drill 33 wells for his plantation. This diverted water from Hawaiian lifeways, where streams flow through taro patches and other crops in inland areas, and continue into coastal fishponds. In ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i, wai means water and waiwai means wealth: if one has water, they have wealth, and vice versa. As such, this theft of water advanced the theft of wealth. Struggles over water demonstrate the significance of water as a political and economic force; in other words, they exemplify how control over water signifies a key aspect of the organization of power and resources. Depriving entire communities of their ability to grow their own food, water theft tore apart the ecological fabric that supports collective well-being, spurring the abandonment of lifeways and entire ways of life.

In the mid-1970s, galvanized by the global social movements of the time, Eric led a group of youth working with a community program called the Wai‘anae Rap Center through the valley, where they stumbled upon the then-dry rock terraces that had previously held the water that the sugar plantation had diverted and stolen. With their machetes, picks and shovels, they bent their backs to restore the oasis of Wai‘anae. Their replanting of kalo enabled them to connect with the life cycles of the ‘āina (that which feeds) and restore a sense of connection to the place. The years of labor cleared the overgrown brush and unveiled lava-rock walls that their ancestors had built by hand. They then resurrected the irrigation systems to send “water coursing from terrace to flooded terrace.” The restoration of waterways involved the recuperation of ways of knowing through the replanting of pride in their Hawaiian identities through the rebuilding of Hawaiian lifeways.

The State of Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources originally deemed the restoration of Ka‘ala’s watershed system illegal, despite the fact that plantations had illegally redirected water from the lo‘i to feed their commercial enterprises in the first place. Ka‘ala Farm eventually won this legal battle because activist anthropologist and University of Hawai‘i Manoa ethnic studies professor Marion Kelly found maps of precolonial water flows made by settlers. Through cultivating the land and waging battles in the courtroom, Eric, youth of the Wai‘anae community, and their supporters remade the landscape of the region and continue to do so every day. Ka‘ala Farm remains a learning center for Indigenous knowledge, demonstrating how the people of Wai‘anae restore alternatives to racial capitalism and Indigenous erasure, even as uneven geographical development persists.

Just as colonial ecologies are never totalizing and complete, so too are decolonial ecologies. The waterways of Ka‘ala Farm, an Indigenous infrastructure, coexist with the prominence of highways as a U.S. military infrastructure that also serves as the lifeblood of the region. The H1, the largest highway on O‘ahu that was built in the 1950s and 1960s, had the original name of “H1 Defense Highway.” This denoted its purpose to connect Pearl Harbor, Barbers Point, and Diamond Head, all U.S. military bases. The H1 also links with the Farrington Highway that cuts through Wai‘anae, connecting Barbers Point with the Lualualei Naval Annex, Mākua Military Reservation, and the Ka‘ena Satellite Tracking Station. In addition to connecting bases, the shift from waterways to highways as the most salient feature of the coastline partitions ma uka (inland) from ma kai (toward the ocean), splitting connections between land/sea and freshwater/saltwater central to the Hawaiian land and water tenure system. Transforming entire ways of life, these highways regulate and reshape human relations with the natural world.

As we see in Wai‘anae, the environment serves as the foundation of settler colonialism and racial capitalism that involve the theft of livelihoods and fracturing of landscapes. At the same time, locally situated human-environment intimacy invigorates and stands central to broad struggles for healthy livelihoods, decolonization, and self-determination. These decolonial ecologies involve vibrant persistent efforts that transform the socioenvironmental conditions that produce vulnerabilities while forging a future that centers abundance and collective wellbeing premised on the interdependence of all living beings and our shared sources of life. ■