SUSTENANCE VS. SUBSISTENCE
Molokai: Battle for Survival
Molokai Ranch says an upscale community at Laau Point will pump needed cash into the economy. Residents fear the development will impair their food gathering and alter the culture of the area.
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Rodeo record holder Hanohano Naehu, 29, rode out of Molokai during his college years to make a name for himself on the mainland, but soon returned home to greener pastures.
"I wanted to spread aloha all over the place, but I witnessed a lot of prejudice and bad stuff outside of Hawaii, where I grew up sheltered on Molokai," said Naehu as he moved lava rocks to form an offering site near a palm-leaf covered encampment at Laau Point.
While Naehu worked gathering and configuring lava rocks on a recent Friday afternoon, other Hawaiian activists and supporters fished in the ocean and cooked an evening meal over a fire pit. The pristine point has been occupied by activists and supporters since Molokai Ranch revealed plans to build a luxury subdivision near the federally protected lands.
Laau Point, which according to ancient Hawaiian legend was created when the people of Molokai retrieved a floating hau tree branch from the shark god of Kainalu and planted it on a fertile bit of land, has become the tree from whence all branches of Molokai controversy grow. It's the source for all wrongs, imagined or otherwise, on Molokai.
While the area is an attractive economic resource for developers who prize its dramatic views and unique terrain, Laau Point contains a vast array of cultural, archaeological, subsistence, environmental, agricultural, recreational and subsistence resources for Naehu and others who do not view land as a commodity but rather as the foundation of their identity as Hawaiians. The shallow reef area off Laau Point, called Penguin Banks, is known for ophihi, pupuawa, pipipi, and aama crab that inhabit the boulder coastline. Algae and limu kohu are in abundance near the shore.
Life for Naehu is simple on Molokai, where he works at the private, nonprofit Hawaiian Learning Center and supplements his wages by hunting and fishing. Living off the land is vital for Naehu just as it was for his father and all of the kupunas that came before on Molokai, Hawaii's most primitive island next to Niihau, the forbidden island.
"Subsistence is something that I have to pass onto my future son," said Naehu, who estimated that he gets two to three of his meals a week from the land. There are few jobs on Molokai, but no matter because most work only to supplement their subsistence efforts and to pay for other necessities, he said.
When it comes to Molokai, the economies of scale are much smaller than on any of Hawaii's other islands, said Naehu, who traces his roots to the French Dudoit family which married into Hawaiian royalty.
ALLISON SCHAEFERS / ASCHAEFERS@STARBULLETIN.COM
The rift between developers and native Hawaiian subsistence practitioners has put childhood friends John Sabas, left, who works for developer Molokai Ranch, and Hawaiian activist Walter Ritte on opposite sides of the table. CLICK FOR LARGE
"This is the greatest battle of my generation," Naehu said. "If development comes to Laau Point, it would be the first time that we have different classes on Molokai. We don't want to be Honolulu or Maui. We don't want development or service jobs, we want to live as one with nature."
Developer Molokai Ranch, which has earmarked 1,432 of its 65,000 acres to create a development and conservation district near Laau Point, has said it is sensitive to the needs of Molokai's permanent residents and has set aside large tracks of land in the region to protect cultural sites and to provide areas for subsistence.
Still, development at Laau Point is a subsistence issue for Molokai Ranch as well, said John Sabas, general manager of community resources for Molokai Ranch and a resident of the isle for more than 30 years. To realize economic viability, the company needs the economic boost such a community would provide, he said.
The company's operating cash flow has been strained for many years, Sabas said.
From 2001 to 2006, the company's net loss from operations has been about $31.6 million, according to an internal economic report provided by Molokai Ranch. In addition to operating losses, annual capital expenditures averaging over $800,000 per year for the past five years have put another drain on the company's cash flow, the report said. Molokai Properties Ltd. has subsidized the continuing operations and upkeep of Molokai Ranch to the tune of $36.9 million over the past six years, it said.
Without the Laau Point development program, Molokai Ranch would be forced to cut ranch operations or break up the property by selling entitled lands on a piecemeal basis, Sabas said. Without the increase in support for golf and hotel operations that will come from development at Laau Point development, the company also would have to consider reducing operations or closing those facilities, as well as the other operations that it subsidizes, such as its maintenance, nursery, and gas station services, Sabas said. The impact of these reductions significantly would affect existing employment at the Molokai Ranch and in Maunaloa, he said.
In exchange for developing 4.7 miles near the shoreline for the Laau project, Molokai Ranch has agreed to give the community more than 50,000 acres, which include 15 miles of undeveloped pristine shoreline property, Sabas said.
A broad cross section of community members support the plan and want to see the jobs and increased economic development that it will deliver, Sabas said, adding that some are conservationists and environmentalists and others are practitioners of native Hawaiian culture or subsistence fishing, hunting, and gathering.
"We all want to preserve Laau Point -- that's the one thing that we all agree on," said Sabas, who has seen the issue of Laau Pont divide many longtime friends and neighbors.
While the ancient Hawaiians depended on the ocean and land for survival, in recent years Laau Point's resources have been depleted by an alarming number of subsistence and commercial fishermen who are using improper harvesting methods, taking undersized animals or ignoring seasonal prohibitions, Sabas said. To protect resources and the environment, Molokai Ranch has banned commercial fishing and hunting and limited access to foot traffic on trails, he said. In this zone, cultural sites and the environment would be protected, and harvesting of resources would be limited to subsistence fishing, hunting and gathering, Sabas said.
"This will allow Molokai's west end to recover from offshore and onshore commercial activities that have seriously depleted fish, opihi and other resources in the area," he said.
Walter Ritte, a longtime Molokai activist and former classmate of Sabas, treasures Laau Point's land and water and believes that despite built-in restrictions Molokai Ranch's development plans will create opportunities for overuse in the region.
"Access is difficult in Laau Point," said Ritte, who is one of the protesters currently occupying the region. "When they put in infrastructure, everything will change."
Though Molokai Ranch has promised to protect subsistence rights, there's no place for palatial homes near native Hawaiian hunting and fishing grounds and cultural sites, said Ritte, who once served on the Molokai Land Trust Board but left due to differences regarding Laau Point.
"We don't want to hunt and fish alongside millionaires and their homes," said Ritte, who has long enjoyed exercising his subsistence rights on Molokai Ranch's Laau Point lands.
If Laau Point gets turned into a resort, the culture of the place will change as well, Ritte said.
"Hawaiians won't be able to afford to live there anymore," he said, citing the real estate appreciation that has occurred as a result of Kaluakoi Resort's entry into the community.
ALLISON SCHAEFERS / ASCHAEFERS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Perly Eleccion, left, and Joseph and Janice Pele are among the Molokai kupuna who support Molokai Ranch's community-based development plan. Shown on the veranda of the Molokai Ranch Lodge, the kupuna gathered for a meeting of the Molokai Land Trust, the governing group formed to manage deeded ranch lands for the community. CLICK FOR LARGE
While total real estate sales in Molokai were about $83 million in 2005, up slightly from a record $79.8 million in 2004, Kaluakoi sales prices are substantially higher than elsewhere on Molokai. The average price for a lot at Kaluakoi in 2005 was $503,000, compared to $182,000 elsewhere on the island, according to economic information obtained from Molokai Land Properties.
Molokai Ranch has argued that property taxes are likely to be unaffected by development of Laau Point, which is physically separated from the rest of the community by hundreds of acres of ranch lands.
The ranch's moratorium on further ranch development and its creation of protective and agricultural easements will further enforce the status quo and limit development, said James E. Hallstrom Jr., a Honolulu-based real estate consultant hired by the ranch.
Still, access could change everything, Ritte said. Since the land between both access points to Laau Point is owned by Molokai Ranch, those who currently wish to visit must get permission from the ranch or hike along the coast, where the shoreline up to the high-tide mark is considered state property, he said.
Such limitations have kept Laau Point rich, but widespread access could rob the region of its cultural and subsistence resources and create class levels in Molokai.
Once the millionaires come to stay at Laau Point, Molokai is surely going to change, Naehu said.
"Guys like them will be going to the mall and guys like me will be going to jail," he said.
Increased development and access will bring traffic to Molokai, said Tarrah Horner, a 28-year-old isle resident.
"It's already happening. The other day, I had to circle the post office three times to find a parking spot," Horner said. "In all the years that I've lived on Molokai, I've never had to do that before. It sounds minor, but it's the start of something."
Though Molokai Ranch's plans aren't palatable to the entire community, they were formed by more than 1,000 isle residents and have been endorsed by many opponents of the ranch's previous development efforts such as Colette Machado. An activist and Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee, Machado said that she has taken hits from fellow native Hawaiians whom she said have accused her of turning her back on Molokai.
Time will prove that sanctioning a guided development in Laau Point in exchange for establishing a community-based land trust for Molokai is the right action for the island's future, she said.
"I'm looking down the road 50 years and this plan will still be protecting our hunting, fishing, archeological and cultural resources," she said. "This is the best solution."
Janice Pele, a Molokai kupuna whose ancestors once lived near Laau Point, said that she seconds Machado's viewpoint and that she supports the creation of a land trust that will open many formerly private lands to Molokai's community. Pele said that she and most other isle residents have never had the opportunity to visit Laau Point because the region was difficult to access without trespassing on ranch lands.
"If Laau Point were opened, I'd be tickled," Pele said. "I want to go there and see where my parents walked before I die."