Before Western contact, native Hawaiians subsisted
in the ahupua‘a, a valley bounded between two ridges.
From the mountain top to the ocean floor, the ahupua‘a
contained all the resources required for survival.
The ahupua‘a was a pristine environment, managed to sustain
its resources for generations. Streams, home to native fish,
shrimp, mollusks, and insects, were free from pollutants that
could harm the life it sustained.
Today, the ahupua‘a is no longer pollution free. Runoff
of fertilizers, soaps, and engine oil has contaminated the streams,
oceans, and fish–a primary food source for native Hawaiians.
The polluting of streams and oceans has impacted native Hawaiian
practices. Unlike their ancestors, today’s Hawaiians find
few places to practice subsistence fishing which provides enough
fish to sustain their families, and they are aware of places
that may be polluted.
So to lessen potential impacts on minority and low-income populations
in Hawai‘i, many that fish to supplement meager food budgets
are stemming from the ever-increasing demands of development.
The Hawai‘i Legislature passed Senate Bill 2145 during
its 2006 session to incorporate environmental justice guidelines
into its planning processes and to define environmental justice
in the unique racial context of Hawai‘i through community
States are not required to adopt environmental justice policies,
but they do because it is a good idea,” said Debbie Lowe,
a scientist for the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA)
Region 9, which includes Hawai‘i, based in San Francisco.
In Hawai‘i, most communities are made up of minorities,
in particular Asians and Pacific Islanders. Unlike the mainland
U.S., “all ethnic groups in Hawai‘i are considered
to be a minority,” said Jeyan Thirugnanam, an environmental
planner for the state Health Department’s Office of Environmental
Quality Control (OEQC). “There is no one group that is
considered to be a majority.”
Thirugnanam suggests that, rather than focus on ethnicity, environmental
justice initiatives should focus on income, where it is easier
to discretely define marginalized groups. He also suggests evaluating
environmental justice issues on a project-by-project basis.
SB 2145 also requires the development of a guidance document
that addresses environmental justice in all phases of the environmental
impact statement (EIS) process.
Currently, when a proposed project is expected to impact human
health or the environment, an EIS is initiated. Ideally, Thirugnanam
says, evaluating environmental justice issues should be addressed
in the EIS process before a project is built, but this is not
a requirement in Hawai‘i at this time.
The OMPO’s Low concurred. For example, she said, officials
could address environmental justice issues in transportation
planning, through the development of regional plans or through
the current efforts of Honolulu’s high-capacity transit
corridor alternatives analysis that considers the design of a
mass transit system. Low added that officials could “deal
up front, early in the planning process, even before the implementation
of the environmental assessment and EIS processes.”
Involving the Community
Once the EIS identifies potential impacts to a minority or low-income
community, the task then becomes providing opportunity for those
communities to have meaningful involvement in the process.
Meaningful involvement means that people have an opportunity
to participate in decisions about activities that may affect
their environment and/or health,” the EPA’s Lowe
said in a phone interview. From OMPO’s perspective, Low
said that “This can prove to be a difficult task considering
that, based on 2000 Census data, at least 25 percent of the people
in Hawai‘i do not speak English very well.”
To overcome the language barrier, Low said OMPO works to attract
people who do not normally attend transportation planning meetings
by advertising in various languages on radio and in ethnic publications,
offering financial compensation for travel and time to focus
group meetings and providing language translation.
Language barriers are not limited to ethnicity. Governmental
and scientific jargon can also block communication. So, in addition
to language translation, certain environmental lingo should be
redefined to reflect the native values of Hawai‘i, said
Lynette Cruz, Ph.D., a Hawai‘i Pacific University international
Cruz said the terms “environment,” “resource,” and “sustainability” need
to be redefined based on the land values of the Hawaiian culture.
Currently, these terms reflect Western values. Cruz said “that
by having the Hawaiian community define the term environment,
the definition will be less intellectual and more about feeling.”
Stephen Kubota of the Ahupua‘a Action Alliance said that
the language used in community outreach should not threaten or
isolate, but be inclusive of all people who make Hawai‘i
Cruz said that Hawaiians view themselves as being a part of the
environment, whereas Westerners see the environment as something
distant and separate. Cruz added, “the role of the Hawaiians
is not to dominate the land, but to serve the land, the water,
everything. The goal is to maintain the land so that it is beneficial
Kubota said that the framework for justice in Hawaiian values
is based on two words – pono (to do what is right) and
aloha. These values are “motivators to do what is right
now and the break the cycle from descending into chaos,” said
Kubota. The goal is to live in balance with the environment so
that the Hawaiians are healthy.
Hawaiians are physically, socially, and emotionally connected
to the (land). If the land is damaged, then the well-being of
the Hawaiians is also damaged,” said Kubota.
The key to life in the land is water. As water falls from the
sky into the streams, which then flow into the ocean, “it
is pure and sacred, not to be contaminated,” said Kubota.
He added that in this pure water the Hawaiian women washed their
kids, cooked, and grew their food. Kubota believes that today’s
contaminated waters of Hawai`i are an injustice to the women
and children because they can no longer care for their families
in traditional ways.
So if one were to define environmental justice in Hawai‘i,
Cruz said it would be “the ability of the Hawaiians to
practice their culture in their environment.”
Based on Kubota’s view, Hawaiians should return to their
traditional practices of gathering fish at the shoreline, growing
taro, or planting backyard gardens. Kubota said it is about supporting
yourself and your family. “Aloha spirit gives people hope
so they can do something—so they can bring balance back
into the environment,” said Kubota.
Poetically, Cruz said, “the place should be better for
you having been there. Pick up trash, pull weeds, sing a song,
say a prayer. The world will be better because you were there.”