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

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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.