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Silencing Native Voices: 200 Years After First Foreign Contact, Efforts to Control Native Lands Reignite

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One would imagine that there would be a natural alliance between native peoples and conservationists. Often their agendas are the same; they share rhetoric. They also share a love for the tenants of deep ecology.

Environmentalists and indigenous peoples should be of the same mold. They should be working together.

Yet, on too many occasions, they find themselves at odds. It's a global phenomenon, in no way unique to any one place, government or community.

It's always tragic and painful when such conflict occurs, because it is both unproductive and unnecessary.

One of the latest kerfuffles revolves around the efforts of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) to manage a land area, including the restoration of a brownfield, in the downtown Honolulu area.

Traditionally, Kaka'ako was a thriving sustainable community, rich with kalo (taro) fields, salt ponds, and fishponds. To appease the need of foreigners who sought to expand Honolulu's urban area for commercial activities, the traditional areas were demolished in the late 19th century when 22 acres of healthy reef were filled in with dredged material to create new land area.

This area was critical in the historic overthrown of the sovereign Hawaiian Kingdom by foreign businessmen, as the area was a hub of military and foreign commerce activities throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Over 100 years later, Hawaiians have regained control of a small amount of land in this area. In 2012, 30 acres of land in Kaka'ako were conveyed to OHA to settle the State of Hawai'i's past due public land trust revenue debt, an amount owed of Native Hawaiians under the Hawai'i State Constitution for the State's continued use of lands illegally seized from the Hawaiian Kingdom.

It was a long, drawn-out, painful dispute that remained unresolved for nearly 30 years. Current debts and long-term resolution remain unresolved.

The settlement served two primary purposes: settle a portion of the public land trust revenue dispute and allow OHA to generate revenue on these lands to fund services and programs that further its statutorily-established responsibility to protect and promote Native Hawaiian rights and to better the conditions of Native Hawaiians. In order to see these purposes through to fruition, OHA seeks the ability to consider developing three of its nine parcels consistent with the surrounding urban and residential community.

A small group of non-Native conservationists are opposing the proposal with open hostility towards Hawaiians and Native rights. So Hawaiians now find themselves faced with an onslaught of opposition rich with misinformation, cultural misappropriation and a revival of anti-Hawaiian sentiment reminiscent of Hawai'i during its dark territorial era.

Many of the opponents have outright told Hawaiian supporters that they neither understand their own cultural values and that the Hawaiian community is unfit to make their own decisions regarding their lands. Most alarming is that the opposition to Native land rights is not isolated to Honolulu, as similar situations are emerging in Kailua and on the island Ni'ihau.

It is a dangerous precedent for a state struggling to address past and ongoing injustices committed against its native community.

The racial divide between the support and opposition on this issue is alarming - one only look at the testimony to see Hawaiians overwhelming in support with non-Hawaiians overwhelmingly in opposition in all the emerging situations.

This insidious work of a few also flies in the face of the multitude of alliances and partners that have been successfully formed between conservationists and Native Hawaiians. Throughout Hawai'i, people work together to protect communities and resources.

It is the way things should work. It is the best recipe for a sustainable future for everyone in Hawai'i.

Of the many doctrines on native rights applicable to this situation, perhaps none speaks to the heart of this issue more than Article 26 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which reads:

Article 26

1. Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired.
2. Indigenous peoples have the right to own, use, develop and control the lands, territories and resources that they possess by reason of traditional ownership or other traditional occupation or use, as well as those which they have otherwise acquired.
3. States shall give legal recognition and protection to these lands, territories and resources. Such recognition shall be conducted with due respect to the customs, traditions and land tenure systems of the indigenous peoples concerned.

This principle is reinforced by the Hawai'i State Constitution. OHA has every right to use these lands as they see fit for the betterment of Native Hawaiians.

Further, OHA is not new to land management. In 2006, they intervened to save and preserve the nearly 2,000-acre lush valley of Waimea on O'ahu's North Shore from proposed amusement park and residential development. Shortly thereafter, nearly 26,000 acres of forest area rich with native species used by Hawaiians for traditional healing and religious ceremonies were protected when Wao Kele o Puna was turned over to OHA for management. Further, throughout their entire history, OHA has fought to preserve Native Hawaiian rights, including an extensive regime of environmental rights.

A 2013 study by The Nature Conservancy and OHA found that the impact of traditional Hawaiian uses on native ecosystems prior to western contact was over 40 percent less than it is today. Like most indigenous communities, foreigners in Hawai'i had a devastating impact on traditional resources. 2.1 million acres have been affected by foreign contact and modernization.

It seems that if the past is prologue, environmentalists should be urging the return of resource management to native peoples, as indigenous peoples have proven time and time again their commitment to conservation and unparalleled expertise in land management. A recent study from the National Geography Society further linked ecosystem health and the presence of Native people. The science reinforcing native land rights leaves little excuse for failing to support Native leadership in resource management.

In a time when our growing environmental needs surely require all people to join together to find viable and sustainable solutions, it is gravely unfortunate that some individuals refuse to see the extraordinary benefits gained from embracing native communities and their traditional ecological knowledges.

In a small island community like Hawai'i, where Native communities have protected valued ecosystems across the islands for countless generations, such lingering ignorance and arrogance is unforgivable.