Plantation Agriculture and the Hawaii Wildfires

Firefighters and a wildfire. Photo via Pexels.

In early August, wildfires broke out across Hawaii, predominantly on the island of Maui. While events like wildfires are complex in their origins, a long history of intensive monocrop agriculture throughout the islands set the stage for this disaster.

As the Hawaiian islands were being colonized historic wetlands, rivers, and forests were destroyed for sugarcane and pineapple plantations.

According to T.R. Witcher in the Civil Engineering Magazine, the Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Company and those who merged into it in the late 1800’s had developed irrigation canals that cut through over 50 miles of eastern Maui.

Major irrigation canals like this kicked off the Hawaiian sugar economy while depleting rivers and wetlands in their paths.

Despite sugarcane being both a drought-resistant crop and one that can be cultivated in wetlands, millions of gallons of water had been redirected throughout Hawaii for plantations that established themselves on drier, flatter parts of the islands.

During the establishment of sugarcane plantations breadfruit trees, also known as ulu, were cleared wide-scale. In the region of Lahaina in Maui forests of breadfruit trees thrived before colonization.

In an article on Civil Eats, Noa Lincoln with the University of Hawaii, Manoa Noa, says, “Those trees probably had a very significant effect in terms of the region’s moisture. Deep-rooted trees are able to tap into the water table. If you look at the rainfall, Lahaina was always way too dry to grow breadfruit. But the fact that you had this huge breadfruit growth and all these wetlands essentially speaks to the fact that the trees were tapping into this subterranean water table, lifting moisture up to the surface, redepositing some of that moisture through leaf litter, allowing for additional rain capture, for reduced evaporation, increased carbon in the soil, and holding additional moisture.”

Destruction of the trees for plantations became so wide scale that it had to be made illegal to cut them down.

Despite those laws, settlers continued to remove them through other means: “Plantation owners started to pile their bagasse, their spent sugarcane pressings, around the base of the tree and burn it. After three or four burnings, it would kill the tree. They weren’t breaking the law. They weren’t cutting it down, but they were very systematically and deliberately eliminating the trees from this region.”

Actions like these cleared forests and exposed land that didn’t receive much rainfall, while also depriving indigenous Hawaiians of a major food source.

Today, there are much fewer sugarcane farms in Hawaii but much of the land that had been used for sugarcane now lies fallow. According to Civil Eats approximately 50% of Maui’s agricultural land is fallow and filled with non-native grasses that are prone to starting wildfires.

Hawaii is not the only place where colonial and agricultural practices have depleted the land and spread these grasses. Wildfires throughout the Great Plains, California, Canada, and Australia are also sparked by the spread of unmanaged, non-native grasses and the alteration of the native landscapes during colonization.

Despite being fallow, much of this land is inaccessible for farming due to a lack of protections for agriculturally designated lands. This land is very expensive to buy and often bought up by developers and “gentleman farmers” that use them for recreation. Other than major companies such as Dole, people who do grow food on the island tend to be in a small, privileged minority due to how difficult it is to acquire land.

The combination of the redirection of water, the altering of landscapes, land inaccessibility, and lack of protections for indigenous water users made it so that when the wildfires came, not much water was available to fight them.

These events disproportionately affect indigenous Hawaiians as many tourists and settlers on the island live in privileged and wealthier areas of the island. In those parts, water has been redirected and guarded for real estate development, luxury hotels, pineapple plantations, and golf courses. Droughts and unequal distribution of Hawaii’s resources have especially intensified water insecurity and danger faced by indigenous Hawaiians in recent years.

While there are other factors that start wildfires, it is undeniable that plantation agriculture and colonization has been major factors in creating a landscape susceptible to wildfires.

Noa Lincoln insists that one of the things that needs to be taken from this is not that agriculture is inherently damaging, but that there are better agricultural systems that can feed people without risking so much destruction: “In Hawaiian culture, really any Indigenous culture, agriculture is the fundamental way that people interact with their environment. To me, it really sets the tone for our entire society.”

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