Star-Bulletin Features


Monday, July 13, 1998



By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Seisuke Serikaku, a 50-year resident, walks barefoot across
a freshwater creek on the way to his pink ginger plants.
He harvests ti leaves barefooted.



Waiahole & Waikane

Tapa

Worth the fight

It's been a long, hard road to walk for
Waiahole-Waikane residents, who banded together
20 years ago when developers threatened the lush
land they call home and who continued to march
in fiery protest until their voices were finally heard

By Tim Ryan
Star-Bulletin

Tapa

ON a typical sunny, windless summer morning in windward Oahu, before clouds stack up against the Koolaus and humidity increases, Waiahole Valley is aswarm with farmers, rumbling tractors, mothers walking with small children, dogs dozing by the sides of the road, the hum of chain saws, chirps of birds and buzz of bees, and streams dancing over rocks into fields of ginger, ti, bananas, papaya, corn and other crops.

A short distance mauka of Kamehameha Highway on Waiahole Valley Road, three generations of Royos are outside their modest home. Some sit at a picnic table under an enormous mango tree talking story. Others play with a mostly disinterested dog; a muscular young man repairs a car sitting on jacks; another young man lifts weights in a nearby shack.

In the air hangs a smell that reflects much of rural Oahu: fragrant flowers, tropical fruit, wet grass, fertile soil. The pleasant scent emanates not just from someone's yard but the entire valley, a lush and green and alive place that not only has withstood the push for "progress" but sent it packing.


By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
David Chinen with some of the fruit from his crop.



Waiahole Valley seems a world away -- though just 30 minutes -- from the dismal concrete sprawl of urban Honolulu, remaining, perhaps, the stereotypical tropical fantasy with its fat fruit, colorful flowers, majestic green, craggy peaks, and peace.

"This is one reason why we fought for Waiahole for so long," said David Chinen, 20-year president of the Waiahole-Waikane Community Association. "And why we would do it again, in a heart beat."

Chinen, a soft-spoken second generation Waiahole farmer, last month at a low key, though emotionally charged association meeting at Waiahole School, handed out 93 leases approved and signed by the state. The leases allow residents and farmers here to continue a rural lifestyle promised to them by the state in 1977.

Gov. Ben Cayetano presented the 55-year leases in five boxes to Chinen because the state had agreed not to develop 600 acres of land in Waiahole after the residents vowed to fight their evictions. Instead, the state offered the 100-family community a residential subdivision and an agricultural park.

"My father farmed in Waiahole and was a member of this association," Chinen explains. "If the farmers were kicked out of here -- many of whom have been here since the '40s -- they would have no place to go."


By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Talima Correa with daughter Taisha, 3, relaxes in front
of their home on Waiahole Valley Road. The banyan tree
behind her is one of the best things she likes
about coming home.



Chinen, 53, born and reared in Waiahole, raises papayas and bananas on 10 acres.

Of the 93 Waiahole leases, 43 are agricultural and 50 are residential, Chinen said. About 100 families -- 500 people -- live in the valley: 40 percent Asian, 50 percent mixed ethnicity, 5 percent Caucasian and 5 percent Hawaiian, he said.

For more than two decades tenants and farmers in Waiahole have been on month-to-month leases. Fifty-three supporters died during the classic struggle of pro versus anti development before the leases were signed.

A proposed housing development in Waiahole and Waikane valleys led to angry confrontations between the private landowner, Elizabeth Loy Marks and state officials, and Waiahole residents threatened with eviction. The state defused the situation by buying Waiahole Valley in 1977 for $6.1 million, but negotiations with the residents for the leases stretched through two decades.

In the early days of the struggle, Chinen recalled, Waiahole residents blocked Kamehameha Highway in protest, marched on state offices, took their struggle to places like the University of Hawaii. There was even a warning system in the valley -- air horns in trees -- to notify residents of approaching law enforcement and possible evictions. Residents blocked the few main roads into the valley with their own cars and trucks to impede law enforcement vehicles.


By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Pat Royos was in the struggle to preserve the land
from the beginning, 21 years ago. Here, she sits
with granddaughter Jena Royos..



Many disputes over the long-term leases lingered until 1995, when Waiahole residents finally agreed to sign them. (The state then held off executing the documents until the Waiahole Ditch controversy was resolved a year later.)

In neighboring Waikane Valley, the city has completed the purchase of 500 acres from Azabu USA Inc. and is developing a master plan for a nature preserve, leaving the valley unsettled.

The association vehemently opposed changing zoning from agricultural to urban to accommodate the massive housing development, Chinen said.

"If this had been vacant land it might, might, have been a different story, but a lot of the farmers had been here since the 1940s and had invested so much labor," he said. "We couldn't just let go."

tapa

When Pat Royos, who has lived in Waiahole since 1967, learned about the planned development in 1973 she and a neighbor began notifying community members.

"We had no choice but to stand up and fight because we had no place to go and the valley was going to be destroyed," Royos says. "We really didn't know how powerful the other side was with their politicians, and attorneys and developers. Maybe ignorance is a good thing in the beginning."

Royos, clinging to her sleeping grandchild, can't forget the dozens of Waiahole residents "who fought with us" but are now dead.

"So many who waited for so long are gone," she says, starting to cry. "They stood with us on the highway."

Grown men and women were young kids when the battle ensued, Royos said.

"Now they have a place they know is their home for a long time," said Royos who repeats the enduring Waiahole fighting motto: "People united will never be defeated."

The struggle was David and Goliath, rich against the poor, development vs. traditional lifestyle. Just who were these Waiahole upstarts who formed a steering committee that "put their okoles on the line?"

tapa

They are mostly lowly educated, modest and unassuming farmers who prefer being left alone and living a hard but peaceful lifestyle. The last thing they wanted -- or certainly knew how to deal with -- was fighting "the big boys," says 50-year Waiahole farmer Seisuke "Sei" Serikaku.

"The politicians learned that Waiahole people will not tolerate any b.s.," Serikaku said. "We can be very proud of what we accomplished here because this is one of the few land battles in Hawaii won by residents who want to keep country country."

Serikaku, 73, a wiry 135-pound farmer -- he admits to gaining 10 pounds since farming Waiahole for half a century -- raises mostly green ti leaves for laulau and hula skirts, and pink and red ginger on 16 acres. Bananas, abundant on the property, are "a bonus" he doesn't count on, he said.

"I'm a one-man show," says the father of three daughters with a hearty laugh. "My wife stays home (in Kahaluu) and ties the ti leaves. Farmers should have sons."

The only way to reach his farm on the valley floor is on tortuous mile-long dirt road, severely rutted, undercut and muddy. The trip takes 20 minutes even on a dry day in Serikaku's four-wheel-drive pick-up.

On this morning Serikaku listens to rock music on KSSK and clings to a can of insect repellent while the truck sways in the ruts like a small boat in a heavy sea. Bamboo and other vegetation occasionally poke through the side windows as the truck descends.

"I love farming 'cuz nobody bothers you," says Serikaku who works 11 hours a day, six days a week. "I'm don't want to be supervised by others."

He spends an hour a day for lunch eating in the truck's cab where he also naps.

"We were all very, very afraid about losing the land," Serikaku admits. "It was the first time any of us had faced such a situation. We didn't know what to do, how to stop it, how to fight the big boys.

"If I had to leave the farm I would be working for some company in a menial job. Farming's all I know."


By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Roosters have the run of the yard
at Jose and Pat Royos' home.



His farm is covered with thousands of ti plants and hundreds of ginger plants. Serikaku has cut by hand dozens of deep furrows around the ginger for irrigation and has redirected part of a stream to get water to the crops. He never wears shoes, a hold over from his days farming rice on his family farm in Kahaluu.

"Wearing boots makes me real tired," he says very seriously. "They're too heavy on my feet."

As he strips away in a quick snap the long, dark green leaves from ti plants, Serikaku remembers how people criticized the Waiahole group for getting advice from the Revolutionary Commu-nist Party during the early days of the land struggle.

"They were the ones who taught us how to protest, do civil disobedience and organize against the big boys," he said. "They taught us the militancy we needed to get the courage to fight back.

"I used to think activists and protesters were really crazy. Guess you're never to old to learn."

Serikaku barely graduated from high school because he took became sole responsibility for working the family farm after his father suffered a serious stroke when Sei was a 16-year-old junior.

"I had to miss many, many days of school so I could never make plans to go to college," he said. "Educated people have a wider view of the world and a greater sense of priorities."

That may be another reason the struggle for Waiahole was so important to him, adding significance to his life.

"Before human beings leave this earth we want to do something significant. This is my legacy."

Tapa

Joe Royos, who retired from the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard in 1986, says he has always been a happy man, friendly, but quick on the temper trigger when family or home life is in jeopardy.

The 1 1/2-acres Joe and Pat Royos call home with their four children, 19 to 33 years old, is used to raise bananas, plumeria flowers, pigs and chickens. The chickens -- there are about 300 of them -- are shipped to Guam. A few dogs roam the property though a chihuahua named Taco Bell is leashed under a small enclosure.

The Royos', like other Waiahole residents, strongly opposed the planned development but They also considered the land theirs.

"OK, it wasn't our land but in the eyes of the people who lived in the valley for so long we didn't feel it was the Marks land either," Royos said.

Waiahole residents deserve the low-rent leases "because we fight for it and we negotiated with the state for it," he said

"Other communities just quit in these things but this wasn't given to us on a holy platter....We got cheap land because we fight for it when other communities just fade away."

Tapa

The leases mark a beginning for Waiahole Valley, Chinen and Serikaku agreed. Today, there are problems that didn't exist when the land battle began, including thefts, "mostly by outsiders," and the importance of insuring a good education for the valley's youth who usually complete high school "but that's all," Chinen said.

"The valley needs leaders," he said. "There are (rules) with the leases that must be followed. Who's going to enforce them? The state won't check every month. The association will be the entity for enforcement so we have the responsibility to make this ag park work."

An appliance repair man who has driven the length of Waiahole Valley Road several times looking for an address finally stops to ask two men in a slow-moving tractor for directions.

"Don't know the number, but what's the name?" the driver asks.

A series of directions follows: "Take the right section of the fork after the mango trees; look for the papaya farm then go one house after the yard with the two big trucks; turn left at the broken mail box; honk your horn and the owner will come out."

The directions, it seems, could lead to dozens of homes where children's colorful swings gleam in the sun, chickens roam yards along with dogs and cats, mud-

splattered trucks sit under makeshift car ports and houses with majestic views of Chinaman's Hat and the windward coast sit half painted.

"Waiahole is a place where people share, where people care," Pat Royos says. "We have time for one another. Fisherman who catch extra and farmers who grow too much share with neighbors. This valley is one great ohana."



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