You like preserve the land you stole?

Haleakala Times has a good piece by Van Jones looking at the racial politics of environmentalism, an issue I've been interested in for many years (I wrote an article on the subject in the Student Environmental Action Coalition newsletter in 1990, after going to some national student environmental conferences and seeing how white they were, and learning about the disproportional impact of toxic dumping and other issues on communities of color). Jones' piece is very worth reading, but in relation to Hawaii, the editorial that accompanies the story brings it home to our issues here.
In our lead story this week, “Eco-Apartheid,” Van Jones of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights recommends that activists take an “inclusive approach” to prevent polluters from isolating and derailing the new movement. Hawaii’s environmentalists should take his advice to heart. To a large extent, the situation here fits the model well. Native Hawaiian environmental justice groups are somewhat aligned with—but function for the most part separately from––large (and predominantly white) “mainstream” conservation groups.

Cultural tensions are partly to blame for the rift. When well-meaning white folks come to the islands to “save them” they meet a skeptical local audience. “We’re sorry about what our ancestors did, but we’re here to preserve your land” is kind of a hard sell. Even more so when you add a “By the way could you stop fishing over there? We’ve been plundering your resources for so long that they’re almost gone.”

Hawaiians say they have different goals from conservationists, who might be trying to save the whales and monk seals, but don’t have a clue about protecting the real Hawaii. Conservationists, a Molokai activist told me, are all about national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. “We don’t want national parks here,” he explained.

I was confused. The activists had spent the better part of their year on a grassroots movement to save La`au Point from irresponsible development. If they didn’t see themselves as conservationists, it seemed something was amiss. Second, I love national parks. I think they might just be the greatest thing about America. I pointed this out to the group. “Could be,” said one of the younger activists. “But this isn’t America.” Fair enough.

This is something I've witnessed in many ways over the years, and have been actively working to build understanding and alliances between the environmental and Hawaiian movements. I come from the former, and in a sense Kekula and I epitomize this dynamic. In fact, we met (in 1993) at a dance where I was selling t-shirts at a Green Party table and she was selling t-shirts at a sovereignty table! And during the first year of our relationship, especially, there were some very tense moments over these exact issues. I remember one meeting we had with a permaculture group and some Hawaiians including Kupuna Apolonia Day, who ended up walking out of the meeting. The very name set off a response: "our culture is permanent!" But that was an important lesson for me, and as we grew to understand each other, we also helped to bridge the understanding in our respective circles.

Over the years, I have seen huge progress in this area. Now environmental groups are generally much more sensitive to approaching things from a culturally respectful position, and Hawaiian groups are generally very open to practical solutions and support that come from an environmentalist perspective. Both sides actively work based on an understanding of mutual benefit. But it is something we continually need to work on, especially as new well-meaning environmentalists constantly arrive to "save" the islands, and it is good to see it addressed here in HT.

There are folks I work with here in Hana who oppose using the words preservation or conservation, even though that is exactly what we're working to do, because to them it implies fencing something off, prohibiting access and use of the resources. With the Kipahulu Ohana, we work with the concept of "conservation through use" and emphasize that we are conserving not just the land in isolation, but the cultural relationship of managing the land by being on and using the land in traditional, sustainable ways. It is based on the legacy of the ancestors, while integrating modern science and conservation practices in a complementary way. And we're dealing directly with the national park on this issue, out of necessity, because they are the largest landowner in Kipahulu, and have come to possess and have the responsibility to manage lands that the families of the area are heirs to and have actively lived on and managed through use for many generations.

But one sign of progress even in this area... In response to the writers argument that national parks are one of the great things about America, the response that “this isn’t America” receives no argument. And that reminds me of a conversation we had a few weeks ago with a fellow who works for the park service and was transferring to a job at another park. He said, in the presence of two other park employees who had just arrived here, "I'm moving to America." Even the park employees themselves are realizing the true implication of this.

Posted: Sun - June 10, 2007 at 06:51 PM    
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Published On: Jun 10, 2007 07:09 PM
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