ONEAll over Maui, golf courses are shining emerald, hotels are managing to fill their pools, and businesses are storing water to sell on luxury properties. And yet, when it came time to fight the fires, some hoses ran dry. Because?
The reason is the long-standing battle over West Maui's most precious natural resource: water. So on Tuesday, Aug. 8, as Tereariʻi Chandler-ʻĪao fled the fires in Lahaina, she grabbed a bag of clothes, some food and something a little unusual: a box full of water permits.
Despite her personal misfortune, Tereari'i, a grassroots advocate, already knew that the struggle for Maui's future was about to intensify, and that at the center would not be fire, but another element: water. Specifically, the water rights of Native Hawaiians, rights that a long parade of plantations, real estate developers and luxury resorts have stifled for nearly two centuries. As the flames got closer, Tereari'i feared that under the guise of an emergency, these big players would finally have a chance to take over West Maui's water for good.
He also knew something else: that the only force with any hope of stopping this theft would be organized grassroots communities, even though those same communities were already on edge, saving lives and searching for lost loved ones.
Disaster capitalism—the all-too-common tactic of exploiting moments of extreme collective trauma to quickly pass unpopular laws that benefit a small elite—is based on this cruel dynamic. As Lee Cataluna, an indigenous journalist born on Maui,was observedRecently, people on the front lines of disaster are forced to focus on "issues of survival". Advertisements. Services. Instructions. Aid. Go here to get fuel. Check this list to see if your husband's name is there” – not forced real estate deals or behind-the-scenes political moves. This is exactly why the tactic often works.
Disaster capitalism has taken many forms in different contexts. In New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, there was an immediate movement to replace public schools with charter schools and demolish public housing projects to make way for apartment gentrification. In Puerto Rico, after Hurricane Maria in 2017, it was public schoolsagainbesieged and pressure was put on to privatize the power grid before the storm hit the continent. In Thailand and Sri Lanka, after the 2004 tsunami, valuable coastal land formerly managed by fishermen and small farmers.Lawyerby real estate developers while its legal residents were trapped in evacuation camps.
It's always a little different, which is why some native Hawaiians call their unique version by a slightly different term: plantation destruction capitalism. It is a name that speaks of modern forms of neo-colonialism and exploitation of the climate, such as real estate agents who havecold callingLahaina residents who lost everything in the fire are urging them to sell their ancestral land rather than wait for compensation. But it also places these movements within the long and ongoing history of settlers stealing and extracting colonial resources, making it clear that while destruction capitalism may take some modern forms, it is a very old tactic. A tactic that native Hawaiians have long experienced resisting.
Which brings us back to what was in that box that Tereari'i rescued, and the location of the water at that fateful moment. For more than a century, water in Maui's Komohana, the island's western region, has been withdrawn to benefit outside interests: first the large sugar plantations and, more recently, their corporate successors. Corporations – including West Maui Land Co (WML) and its subsidiaries, as well as Kaanapali Land Management and Maui Land & Pineapple Inc – have gobbled up the island's natural resources to develop McMansions, colonial-style homes, luxury resorts and golf courses golf course where sugar cane is grown. and once the pineapple grew.
This historical and modern plantation economy has had a huge impact on water, in particular, draining natural moisture from native ecologies. Lahaina, once known as the Venice of the Pacific, has become an arid desert, which made it so vulnerable to fire. Mining shafts from the plantation drained Mokuhinia, a freshwater fishpond of at least 15 acres that fed Moku'ula, an island in the lake that was the seat of the Kingdom of Hawaii. At the beginning of the 20th century the plantationFilledMokuhinia with dirt and finally a baseball field and parking lot appeared above the sacred site.
Even long after most of these original plantations were closed, the infrastructure and dynamics of water theft remained. Today, many Native Hawaiian communities, who have lived on Maui Komohana since time immemorial, continue to lack access to water for their basic needs, such as drinking, washing, and watering traditional crops. For example, Lauren Palakiko, whose family has lived on Kauaʻula for centuries and has priority water rights under the law, testified in state court last year.water commission hearingthat it shouldbathe your baby in a bucketbecause his house did not have enough water. This is because the streams that once ran through its valley are being diverted into luxury subdivisions, which oftenoccupy land controlled by plantations.
It is oneconditionThis has left many native families without access to county water lines (which also means no fire hydrants), as well as without paved roads to escape the devastating wildfires.increasingly threaten their homes and lives. For example, the native Hawaiian families of Kaua'ula Valley, which borders Lahaina, areen deuda con Launiupoko Irrigation Co.(LIC), a subsidiary of WML, because LIC owns the bondcrop season water system. Almost all of Kauaʻula Creek is needed to service rich properties in a neighboring valley andturn off the water completelyin the homes of Kauaʻula families when they claim there is not enough water to sell to their customers and meet water commission standards to protect waterways.
The climate emergency has only deepened these tensions, exacerbating droughts and, as the world now knows, creating conditions ripe for wildfires. In the last five years, firescontriteKauaʻula Valley, wars are escalating over who has the right to access scarce water, including for critical firefighting uses.
In this high-risk context,a growing number of Native Hawaiian communities;they are organizing to claim their rights to water, which they should havemaximum protectionunder Hawaii law, including the constitution, water law code andMarkHawaii Supreme Court precedents. Maui Komohana Native Hawaiians have been working with attorneys for nearly three decades torestorative justice, more recently with pro bono lawyers like Tereariʻi and students fromcloud research centerin Native Hawaiian Law from the University of Hawaii Richardson School of Law.
Together, communities are fighting for their right to manage their water, rather than watch it diverted to often frivolous uses. In June 2022, there was a historic victory: By meeting the overwhelming demands of Native Hawaiians and other residents, the Water Commissionthey voted unanimouslydesignate West Maui as a surface and groundwater management area; According to the Hawaii water code, thisdesignationinvokes the Commission's licensing authority to protect the primary rights of Native Hawaiians and the environment from historic and ongoing overexploitation of water by plantations and developers.
After a protracted fight, and despite predictable industry opposition, the community and water commission prevailed, establishing a new permitting system that the community hoped would restore public control over water that had been stolen for more than a year. The Palakiko family and others began filling out water permit applications, requesting water for domestic needs such as bathing their babies, as well as water for indigenous agriculture in the wetlands.
But here's the cruelest irony: the deadline for submitting these permit applications to the water commission was Monday, August 7. And the fire that consumed Lahaina broke out the next day.
The Governor of Hawaii's administration lost no time in making the extraditionemergency announcementswhich suspended a number of laws, including the "water code of the state of Hawaii, to the extent necessary to meet the emergency." Plantation successors took action, trying to end the designation process they were unable to stop before the state of emergency was declared. In the days following the fires, WMLhe demandedthe water commission lifted protection measures for streams in Maui Komohana, even in areas not affected by fire, andimpliedthat the commission's deputy director, Caleo Manuel, who was the public face of the agency throughout the appointments process, was to blame for the catastrophic fire. The commission chairman complied with the request, allowing the company to divert the streams to fill reservoirs serving its luxury developments. WML eventually requested that the entire designation process be suspended and ultimately modified. Your own executive publiclysteady:"I would love to see it go away"- A movehe complainedby Earthjustice lawyer Isaac Moriwake as an attempt to "use this tragedy for cheap advantage."
Then on Wednesday, as the search for survivors continued, the government announced that “replantingManuel, essentially dismissing him from all his duties and banishing him to a different, unknown position. The change left the commission without an administrative leader.
This is a classic case of disaster capitalism at its worst: a small group of elites using profound human tragedy as a window to overturn a hard-won grassroots victory for water rights while removing inconvenient public officials, politicians for the interests of the administration . -program developers.
For his part, the governor of Hawaii, Josh Green,TheseWML blames, blaming "water management" as the main culprit for the lack of water to fight the fires. In words that many found inflammatory, he seemed to suggest that the fight for water justice was responsible. "It's important to start being honest," he said.these. "Right now, there are people still fighting in our state [to] give us access to water to fight and prepare for the fires, even as more storms come."
Many West Maui communitiesrefuse to acceptWML's rewriting of history. They know, for example, that it was high winds that prevented helicopters from putting out fires, and when they were finally used, seawater proved more accessible. They also understand that the drought conditions that have made the region so vulnerable are the result of more than one thingcentury of settler colonialism, in which indigenous resources were accumulated from plantations and their successors. As Hawaiian poet Brandy Nālani McDougallexplained, if "water could flow, where it could be created and continue to feed and nourish all that it should, this would not have happened."
If there's any reason to be optimistic, it's that the people of Maui have learned from thishis story. Yes, irreplaceable historical and cultural artifacts were found.lostin the flames, but not in the teachings these artifacts represent. Native Hawaiians know their rights: to remain on their ancestral lands, to restore the flow of water to those lands, and to ensure that their indigenous ways of life persist in the face of a climate crisis fueled by colonial plunder. In fact, these traditional ways of life have historically restored abundance to the islands, while poor plantation management has turned the land into desert. That's why grassroots organizers like Tereariʻi knew how to bring this box of precious water rights documents, filled with notes gathered during careful community participation and consultation.
This hard-earned knowledge is also why real estate developers started outdrift, the locals startedorganizationalthey denounce the exploitation of disasters. Many also promisedsecure resourcesIt is essential for families to return to their reconstructed homes and be the authors and architects of their own post-disaster reconstruction, a process based onpatriotism, the spirit of deep reverence for natural and cultural resources.
This is why water is a public trust in Hawaii, owned by no one: not the Governor, not WML, not even Native Hawaiians with ancestral ties to the resource. Instead, under Indian law, water is managed diligently for current and future generations so that all can prosper. Although politically inconvenient for some, this principle is what will sustain life on these fragile islands.I love the countryit has allowed Native Hawaiians to flourish in Hawaii for a millennium, and it is precisely this kind of biocultural knowledge that is necessary to move forward in an era of climate crisis.
Actually, Hawaii is in a state of emergency, but it needs emergency declarationsModepatriotism, not those who brush it aside, opportunistically suspending irrevocable water laws and firing diligent civil servants. What this governor does next will determine whether Maui Komohana will continue to be a place for indigenous and other local families like Palakikos, or whether companies like WML and their wealthy clients will have the power to complete the acquisition land and water in West Maui.
Right now, the world's eyes are on Maui, but many don't know where to look. Yes, look at the ruins, the grieving families, the injured children, the cremated items, and donate what you can to community-led groups on the ground. But also look beyond that. For the aquifers and streams, and for the diversions ditches and reservoirs of the plantation season. Because that's where the water is and whoever controls the water controls the future of Maui.
The fee for this item will go toward the rebuilding of the Maui Cultural Center, directed by Nā ʻĀikane o Maui. Also consider supportingred lightning, who is organizing aid and other support services in Maui right now.
Kapua'ala Sproat is a professor of law atthe global surveyNative Hawaiian Law Center and Environmental Law Program. He also co-directs the Hawaii Rights Clinic at the University of Hawai'i William S Richardson School of Law at Manoa.