Letter from Hawaii #2

I’m back on Kaua’i, land of double rainbows, waterfalls, surfers, storytellers, music makers, iconic KKCR radio, seed-savers and wisdom traditions. At Hanalei Bay, I watched a woman paddling in her canoe and her white dog watching her from the shore, running up and down the beach, frantic. Suddenly the white dog starts splashing through the water and then the dog is paddling like crazy through deep water to reach her mistress. She follows that canoe until her mistress swerves into shallow waters and, after several attempts, the white dog finally hauls herself onto the canoe. I swear White Dog is grinning — pleased as punch — as she assumes her position at the front of the canoe, an iconic watch guard as her mistress paddles back out to sea.

A year ago, just after spending time on Kauai, I was so excited by the victory Kauaian’s achieved in securing a new law requiring companies to disclose their use of pesticides and genetically modified crops. However, on August 25th this year a federal judge ruled the new law invalid.

The bill passed in Kaua’i was a victory for the thousands of citizens who had actively worked to secure its passage. It required that growers disclose the type of pesticides being sprayed on their fields and established “buffer zones” around sensitive areas, including schools, medical facilities, homes, parks, public roadways, shorelines and waterways.

The ‘big four’ – Syngenta Seeds, DuPont Pioneer, Agrigenetics Inc. (owned by Dow Chemical) and BASF Plant Sciences sued for a permanent injunction, arguing that the ordinance unfairly targeted their industry.  U.S. Magistrate Judge Barry Kurren ruled in favor of these companies, effectively stopping Kauai’s new law from coming into effect in October.

For decades, these four companies have been using some of the most toxic pesticides available on their GMO test crops – and at a rate higher than most farms in the nation, according to an analysis of government pesticide databases.

As writer Claire Hope Cummings wrote in her book, Uncertain Peril, “GMOs were not created because farmers were asking for them. They were created as part of a larger business strategy to gain and maintain control over the agricultural sector.  Biotechnology bypassed the existing public system. This radical new product – a plant designed to use more chemicals – was created by industry, for industry.”  And, as Cummings points out, ‘Hawaii is both the birthplace of biotechnology and its nursery.’

The Kurren ruling also has implications for other Hawaiian islands who have passed similar anti-GMO measures on the Big Island, as well as an upcoming ballot initiative to ban the crops on Maui.

o-MANA-MARCHResidents of Kaua’i and anti-GMO advocates were outraged by the decision and are currently considering an appeal. “This battle to protect Kauai’s residents from the effects of toxic pesticides is only just beginning,” said Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff. “We do not accept that people must put up with toxic chemicals being sprayed near their homes and schools, and we will keep fighting for their right to protect themselves.”

Councilman Gary Hooser, who co-authored the bill, also backed an appeal.

“These companies have fought compliance for over a year now. They have much more money than the county … they’re billion-dollar corporations determined not to follow the rules of Kaua’i County,” he said. “This is a long way from over. People are concerned about their health, they’re concerned about the environment. This is just disclosure and buffer zones, nothing more. If they were good neighbors they would just comply.”

“The chemical companies must be held accountable to our people and our land,” said Andrea Brower, a local organizer and Kaua’i native, speaking to Common Dreams writer, Lauren McCauley. “Movements for social justice, the environment and democracy are never straightforward and never easy, especially when they confront such powerful interests.” Using local pidgin words for “earth” and “good/ moral,” Brower added: “People on Kauai are determined in their love for the aina and one another, and committed to what is pono. That cannot be exterminated by a lawsuit. As the absurdity of injustice and the need for deep systemic change is revealed, movements only build in strength.”

Overall, almost 2,000 permits for open-air field testing of GMOs have been issued for Hawai’i, far more than for any other state. The Honolulu Advertiser reports that biotechnology industry jobs actually cost the state an estimated $30 million in lost tax revenues. Each company can write off up to $2 million in taxes without having to create jobs.

GMO is presented by corporations as a necessary solution, and with the suggestion that farmers are unable to manage biodiversity.  In fact, in the hands of organic farmers, of which women comprise the majority, organic farming increases food production while also rejuvenating the soil. It ensures biodiversity; purifies the water; honors and supports the vitality and integrity of natural and cultural systems; and ensures economic livelihoods and sustained prosperity.

Kawa’i and Hawaiian communities are forced to endure the worst of US agriculture while being subjected to sustained economic, cultural and environmental exploitation at a level that no community should be forced to endure.  In the face of such issues, supporting people to join and build strong social justice movements for change is critical to address human rights abuses and to achieve justice.

Movement building was also on my mind when I participated in the launch of the first Indigenous women’s fund to be established in Oceania: the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s Fund.  With funding from Global Fund for Women, a delegation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women traveled to New York to launch it at the World Summit on Indigenous Philanthropy held to coincide with the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples.

Lenore_DembskiWhen I shared the Global Fund for Women’s approach of getting money into the hands of women-led groups and trusting that women to know best how to use the funds to address key issues and opportunities in their communities with Lenore Dembski (an Aboriginal woman educator and innovator in Darwin, Australia), Lenore said, “that’s what we need to do here!”  Lenore went on to co-found the ATSI Women’s Fund.

It was a significant day for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women because it gives them a mechanism to direct funds and resources to where they are most needed.

Importantly, it also connects them to a global community of Indigenous women leaders, to women’s funds across the globe through the International Network of Women’s Funds, to funders committed to supporting the rights of Indigenous women, and to resources including an Indigenous Resource Mobilization Hub, designed to help cultivate funding partnerships.

indigenous lands in indigenous handsAboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have been at the forefront of human rights campaigns in Australia including land rights, the right to access health services, to education, to livelihoods, to freedom from violence and the right to be at the table, or sitting on the ground, when decisions affecting their lives are being discussed.  Indigenous women have created Aboriginal women’s Night Patrols to address violence in local communities, they secured representation in Australia’s national Parliament, they’ve fought for land ownership and land management rights, they helped found National Indigenous TV, and NITV channel manager Tanya Ormanjoined the ATSI delegation.  They co-created a National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, and Kirstie Parker, Co-Chair, also joined the delegation.

Kirstie ParkerIncarceration rates for Indigenous women in Australia are five times that of non-Indigenous women, and suicide rates for Indigenous women are also five times that of non-Indigenous women.  In the community of Katherine, where one of the women here today lives, 86% of all men in jail in the community are Indigenous and so Indigenous women are carrying a heavier family and economic burden in their wake. And yet, a recent survey in Australia found that some 60% of Australians don’t care about and/or have no interest in, or awareness of, Indigenous people in their own country.  As Kirstie Parker said in an address that deserves a global audience  https://www.reconcile.org.au/Kirstie+Parker+CTG+Lecture

The facts are that – statistically – fewer Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander Australians make it out of childhood alive but those of us who do are much more likely than other Australians to have trouble reading and writing, having a safe, clean and comfortable place to live, or ever having a job. Statistically, I’m much more likely than my non-Aboriginal neighbour to be bashed by my partner, land in prison, make less money, and end up hooked up on a dialysis machine.

So, this ATSI Women’s Fund has been created at a time of both immense challenge and immense opportunity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. The creativity, innovation and focus on economic empowerment inherent in the work of these women include vibrant textile designs featuring animals, plants, seeds, water and fire that capture many of the dreaming stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.  They’re a visual and powerful expression of culture, identity and country and a means for women to sustain a livelihood while also working for justice on many fronts.  And it was so great to be part of this launch after the electric energy of the Climate March in New York, where I joined my wonderful friend and

Women for Climate Justice at NY People's Climate March.
More brilliant people powered energy at NY Peoples’ Climate March. – including Women for Climate Justice!

Global Fund for Women Advisor, Kerry Gardner, and some 70,000 other people in a march for climate justice. Of course we were with the women for climate justice contingents, in advocating for women to be at the table and to play a central role in discussions and decisions on climate change and environmental issues.

Roberta Jamieson, CEO of Indspire, gave the keynote address at the Global Indigenous Philanthropy Summit. She called on us to return reciprocity to our work.  She asked philanthropists to “give not because we are poor and needy but because of our mutual potential to fully contribute at every level.” Jamieson advocated for a philanthropy that embraces reciprocity in order for decolonization of philanthropy to occur.  And she reminded us that “our Indigenous reciprocity is not a philosophical approach, it’s our instruction for living.”

In Indigenous culture, this honoring of reciprocity extends to all forms of life.

Writer Claire Hope Cummings in her book, Uncertain Peril, tells the story of Miguel Sanistevan, a ‘hip young farmer…who works for the New Mexico Acequia Association. His goal is to protect all of the traditional seeds and water systems in the area. The acequias are a network of canals that thread through the high desert, distributing water from the mountains into fields in amounts that are sufficient for everyone’s use throughout the summer. The acequias are a shared resource, a common good maintained by local groups through a highly sophisticated common property system. Not surprisingly they are under assault by developers who want their water.

Part of Sanistevan’s work is preserving the ancient irrigation systems used by the Pueblos. Some of the native waterways pre-date the acequia system, which was brought to the area by the Spanish.  Sanistevan tells a moving story about how he, as a young man, fell in love with corn. He was hanging out with some people who “volunteered” him to help plant corn, even though he had never planted anything before.  They sent him off to get the seeds they needed, drawing a map to a remote place where an old man lived. “The place was awesome,“ Sanistevan says.  “This old guy, he had these barrels, and, well, this is where it all starts, man.  He had these barrels…full of blue corn seed. I’d never seen anything like that before. … This old man, he told me to put my hands in. ‘Feel the corn,’ he says. ‘Feel what’s in your hands.  That’s your life in your hands. This is why you are alive.  Now take this, go and plant it.” This, Sanistevan says, is how he began his work.’

Sanistevan later reflects, “We can do it like before the Spanish came, when the Pueblos had six years of food stored. That comes from experience with drought. That’s the intergenerational memory of the landscape.” It used to be, he explains, that the water, the seeds, and the land were all one. No-one could conceive of selling or owning water or seeds. It’s all part of the same thing, that connection between people, place and plants…It’s the reason we want to keep our seed sovereignty.”

Globally, it’s estimated that women do 85 percent or more of agricultural fieldwork (UN FAO). Women are the key to food production and food security everywhere. Women are also the crop watchers in retaining genetic diversity when they save and use their own seed. Around the world, women are using their songs and storytelling to share stories of plants and animals that have been taken from them both as acts of remembrance as well as fierce resistance to colonization and corporatization.  It’s why it’s critical that the contributions of women are taken into consideration when agricultural development decisions are made.

It’s also vitally important that people across the globe join the movement to fight back against privatization, with essential systems and services increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few companies.  According to Claire Hope Cummings, ‘now just four multinational agricultural agrochemical corporations decide what plants are grown, what foods and drugs are produced, and what price will be paid for life’s basic necessities. …This change, from a people-centered food system to a privately controlled one, represents a monumental turning point in the way society functions, but it has been a largely silent, unnoticed transformation.’

If we could embrace the wisdom of Indigenous elders, organic farmers, women’s human rights advocates and storytellers in the way we live with and learn from nature, then our world would be transformed.   Women writers, too, have provided profound insight into our relationship with nature. Rachel Carson sounded the alarm in relation to chemicals and pesticides when she wrote Silent Spring, which included passages such as  ‘A Who’s Who of pesticides is therefore of concern to us all.  If we are going to live so intimately with these chemicals, eating and drinking them, taking them into the very marrow of our bones – we had better know something about their nature and their power.’   Janine Benyus, in her book, Biomimicry, reveals our potential to learn from natural systems in order to innovatively solve human problems. This includes using snail slime as a model for lubricants, employing the light reflecting properties of butterfly wings instead of toxic dyes to make colors … and mimicking the tricks of insects like the Namibian fog beetle which collects water droplets on its textured back.

Dr.-Jane-Goodall’s-Roots-Shoots-ProgramHere on Kaua’i, swimming in Hanalei Bay each morning, embracing the light and lightness of the island, singing and swinging to the ukulele and the surprising occasional banjo, watching red billed wrens doing their dance, listening to ancient stories reclaimed, all gives space for hope. Reading Jane Goodall’s biography and her own immense journey from studying gorillas to her wider role as ambassador for peace also kindles hope. And of course the image of so many children and young people who comprise a global Roots and Shoots Movement inspired by Goodall, as well as many other social movements, suggests that this new generation may use their collective moral compass to affirm Martin Luther King’s image of the arc of history being long, but ultimately bending toward justice.


[symple_testimonial by=” Rachel Carson, Silent Spring” fade_in=”false”]“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”[/symple_testimonial] Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

Jane Sloane
Hawaii / San Francisco


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