Rob Parsons

Malama Kaua'i

Harvesting ideas from the Garden Isle

by Rob Parsons

December 04, 2008

Travel always provides the gift of a differing point of view. Five days on the island of Kauai over the Thanksgiving holiday offered ample perspective on opportunities for community sustainability and ways to support traditional approaches to modern issues.

Apart from the big box stores and malls of Lihue, Kauai has, for the most part, retained its rural character and small town charm. Years after pulling together to rebuild after Hurricane Iniki, there is still a perceptible spirit of cooperation and community. Posters announced an upcoming book-signing event for The Superferry Chronicles, which offers a recent example of Kauaians striving to keep hold of natural and cultural resources and to maintain a simple way of life that would be jeopardized by an influx of Oahu residents.

Two years ago, in June 2006, Kauai hosted a two-day sustainability conference, conceived by a group of community futurists, including former Mayor and current Councilmember Jo Ann Yukimura. A cross-section of attendees included Princeville owner Jeff Stone, Angela Vento of the Sheraton, most of the Kauai County Councilmembers, Sen. Russell Kokubun of the Big Island, who spearheaded the Hawaii 2050 Sustainability Master Plan, and the Kauai Chamber of Commerce.

"Re-localization" is an
opportunity to unite the
community around common
goals of a healthy
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The close-knit community of the Garden Isle used the gathering as a springboard to establish a new non-profit, Malama Kaua'i.

The upstart organization's goals include educating the community about sustainability issues, connecting with other groups and enhancing collaborative efforts. Malama Kaua'i is also focused on pushing for local food production, renewable energy and economic revitalization.

Originally bestowed with some "angel" startup funding, financial support is now diversified through donations, foundation grants and County assistance. Offices are based at Common Ground, where the old Kilauea Agronomics Guava Kai plantation facility is transitioning into a Sustainability Resource Center. Three full-time employees are now on board and are undertaking Malama Kaua'i's current projects.

Executive Director Keone Kealoha listed a few of the group's initiatives: a Green Business Program in partnership with the Kauai Office of Economic Development that offers resources, education and certification to local businesses interested in sustainable practices; a Green Map project to highlight businesses that have met baseline environmental criteria; the "Keep It Local" campaign to revitalize and re-localize goods and services and strengthen the community's economy; the Youth Empowerment Program to engage high school students in sustainable practices; and a KCCR bi-monthly sustainability radio show.

Common Ground malama Kaua'i Sustainable design

Kauaians are pushing for sustainability and a sense of shared purpose.

Malama Kaua'i has also organized community workshops, conferences and sponsors the quarterly Eco-Roundtable, a public forum for sharing information, networking, building coalitions and taking action on issues.

Project Supervisor Andrea Brower, born and raised on Kauai, was recently honored by the Sierra Club-Kauai as activist of the year. She traveled to Quebec, Canada earlier this year as a delegate to the World Youth Congress, and also attended the Bioneers Conference in California.

Brower told me that while Malama Kaua'i's efforts span issues including energy, housing, water resources, planning and culture, much of the focus for the next few months is on food and agriculture. They are helping to develop the master plan for the 75-acre Kilauea Ag Park, promised to the community more than two decades ago. Efforts are also under way to build consensus for revising county zoning ordinances to allow more options for farm worker housing.

The Common Ground site also provides a venue for gardening and composting classes, as well as a community kitchen. The former processing shed serves as a distribution site for a Community Supported Agriculture effort, the Kauai Farmers Co-op. There, customers pick up a weekly box that includes local fruits, salad and cooking greens, root vegetables, culinary herbs and seasonal specialties.

Jillian Sears is the founder and director of the Seed to Table Service-Learning Program. The 12-week "hands-on" apprentice program provides an opportunity for farmer training, with an emphasis on raising vegetables, flowers and herbs with more vitality than shipped-in produce.

"Our goal," says Sears, "is to share the living art of farming." Her own farming roots go back to a childhood spent in the Caribbean; her family moved there from New York when she was 12. There, they raised hot and bell peppers, flowers and herbs and produced specialty lines of marinades, potpourri and spices. They also tended chickens, goats and rabbits.

For now, most of the growing and distribution is in the Kilauea area. Ultimately, the models may be applied in each of the seven districts, or ahupua'a, on the island.

Special care is given to each individual garden bed, and crops, once harvested, are followed with a cover crop, or "green manure," to replenish the soil, which is also rested and rotated. Rather than single crop farming, Sears employs methods which are bio-intensive, bio-dynamic and create inter-planted "food forests."

The hundreds of acres of the guava plantation are gradually being replaced with forestry crops, such as mahogany. The old guava trees are systematically being chipped, and long-time composter Mark Freeman of Heart & Soul Organics is working long windrows into fertile compost. The former Guava Kai site also has yielded to hydroponic and greenhouse crops, and to the Rainbow Tree school.

Brower believes that Kauai, much like the rest of the world, is at a critical juncture, and that "re-localization" is an opportunity to unite the community around common goals of a healthy environment, respect for culture and a high quality of life.

Paramount to the process is plugging the leaks in the economy that spring each time goods or services are imported. A 2008 study by the Rocky Mountain Institute indicated that Kauaians import close to 90 percent of their food, as well as fertilizers, seeds and other necessary farming inputs.

Brower writes that agricultural re-localization on Kauai will include "more farmers' markets, community kitchens in every town, community gardens, preservation and restoration of critical water systems, seed banks, preservation of diverse crop species, eliminating reliance on imported fertilizers and other inputs, adjusting our diets to be based on what can be grown locally, solutions for affordable farmworker housing, programs that provide farmers with access to affordable land, training and education programs, coordinated marketing and distribution and consumer education about the importance of buying local."

Malama Kaua'i also hosts a series of do-it-yourself skills workshops, as part of a "re-skilling" effort to relearn practices that previous generations took for granted. Workshop topics include: basic gardening and cooking; home energy efficiency; building solar water heaters; raising chickens; bicycle maintenance; using coconuts; installing grey water systems; sewing; using la'au lapa'au (Hawaiian medicinal plants); and creating zero waste homes.

Brower believes that in evaluating the wellbeing of the community, it is worthwhile to start with some basic questions: Are there meaningful jobs that pay living wages? Can residents find affordable homes? Does money spent here stay here and build the local economy? Do residents have access to affordable, fresh, healthy foods? Is the ocean in which we swim, surf and fish clean? How about the water we drink?

She notes that in answering these questions, it becomes apparent that despite tremendous economic wealth, our current systems are highly unsustainable and inequitable.

"Sustainable economic self-reliance," says Brower, "is achieved by strengthening and creating green local businesses that produce necessary commodities [like] food, electricity [and] building materials, buying from them and enhancing citizen participation in local government and the economy. We all play an important role in this process, be it through our consumer choices, our involvement with government or our grassroots actions to bring about change."

Brower values the strength of building coalitions with others and in replicating working models to adapt to regional needs. In charting a sustainable course for Maui's future, we may do well to share the broad ideas and initiatives of our neighbors on the Garden Isle.