Land and its uses still rule life in Hawaii
SUGAR CANE and pineapple decorate old buildings downtown. We still talk about Hawaii's plantation society, and what it meant when the sugar plantations closed across the state 20 years ago.
At first, the impact hit families as farmers lost their jobs. People were displaced, sugar mills closed, plantation towns dramatically changed and retraining programs were started with limited success. Steady sources of income and reliable housing, medical care and a way of living were lost.
At the same time, economic changes meant more opportunity for families who had been relegated to back-breaking labor with little chance of advancement.
To our society, it became a cliché to stew about the loss of an island lifestyle.
Today the reweaving of our island fabric without palaka is still causing changes.
Last Tuesday's Kauai tragedy with the apparent deaths of seven people -- only three bodies have been recovered at this writing -- as floodwaters breached a century-old sugar plantation reservoir uncovered a new tension and change for Hawaii.
Gov. Linda Lingle says after 10 years on the Maui County Council and another eight as mayor she had never heard of problems with any of the hundreds of old plantation reservoirs and their dams.
County roads, state bridges and county sewers, yes, she knew their problems, their sources of funding and life expectancies, but the reservoirs dotting plantation land, no.
Now the plantations are closed and the land, rich for farmers, is just as valuable to developers. As always, everything in Hawaii turns on the control of land.
If plantations no longer control the land, tracts of formerly productive fields cannot stand idle. They are sliced into "agricultural subdivisions."
Kauai Sen. Gary Hooser points to an increasing urbanization of rural land and the resulting tension between old land uses and new.
"We don't want to write off farming, we live in a rural community," Hooser says of the increasingly gentrified Kauai.
But newcomers don't see reservoirs to water the cane, they see cunning little lakes.
In years past, the Big Island was the land of sugar. The Hamakua plantations grew the cane that fueled Hawaii's economy and the workers mobilized the ILWU, which grew Hawaii's Democratic politics. Neither is what it used to be.
The tiny town of Hawi in North Kohala was the kind of proud little plantation town that symbolized old Hawaii; now Hawi is a quaint village for the gated communities ruling the lifestyle.
A politician born and schooled in Big Island politics says he goes back to Hilo to find a town filled with faces he doesn't recognize. The new rich from San Francisco and San Jose are poking around Hilo town looking for wall sconces, not "toe-tongue" roofing.
The legacy of Hawaii's plantation past may be how we answer the questions of turning cane and pine lands into home lots.
writes on politics every Sunday in the Star-Bulletin. He can be reached at 525-8630 or by e-mail at email@example.com