Food & Environment

Navigating Humanity Towards a Sustainable Future

Small islands have finite resources, and the people of old learned how to live sustainably with what they have. Particularly in more remote islands with no access to trade (such as the Hawaiians Islands), what you have is all you have, and you have to make it last. This notion is captured in the saying “He moku he wa‘a, he wa‘a he moku”: The canoe is an island, the island is a canoe. The same principles that allowed Oceanic voyagers to survive lengthy excursions across vast distances of open ocean are the princples that enabled survival on small, remote islands.

For the land and sea to sustain us, we need to manage them in ways that serve both their interests and ours.  Sustainability is a reciprocal relationship between society and environment.  On islands that once fed nearly a million people, today around 90% of our food is imported to serve a population not much larger. And the environment that was once host to myriad unique species has been overrun by invasive plants and animals brought in since Western contact. The Hawaiian islands account for some 50% of all endangered species in the United States.

We here at the Pacific Worlds Institute are researching and promoting food security and environmental awareness. Our campus is located in Mountain View (Ola‘a) in the district of Puna on the island of Hawai‘i. Puna is among the most food-insecure districts in the entire state, with large portions being virtual food deserts. We are restoring land recently used to grow ornamental flowers back into food prodcution. Our agricultural produce will be provided to the East Hawai‘i Food Basket, a major food bank serving Puna, and we offer educational programs to help those who need training in traditional food production.

At the same time, our campus includes native ‘ōhi‘a rainforest, threatened not just by invasive plants and animals but by newly introduced plant diseases. We are eradicating invasive plants and restoring native species, as well as traditional plants for food, medicine and materials that were brought by the Polynesian voyagers.

These demonstration plots provide education for residents, visitors and newcomers to better understand Hawaiian traditional agriculture and unique ecosystems, in addition to increasing food security in the area.

Additionally, through our research, we are promoting greater community-based resiliency in the face of natural disasters and climate change. Currently, federally funded programs for resiliency focus on first responders—those who come to the rescue after the fact. We hold that building greater community resiliency in advance holds more potential for mitigating against the worst impacts of natural disasters, and we are making the case for that agenda.


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