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by Leslie Kahihikolo, student writer


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 outreach activities.

State Planning

“ 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 studies professor.

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 their home.

Hawaiian Values

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 for everybody.”

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.”

Next Steps

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.”



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