On the back of an intense work period I manage to get a break in Hawaii. For me island cultures have a special place as they have their own ways of seeing and being and a mystic connection to the sea and nature, as evoked in their storytelling. In their location they are fixed and yet fluid, vulnerable and yet resilient.
Kauai (pronounced Kawaii) casts its spell as soon as we arrive and I feel myself soften as I open up to sea, sky, stars and community. I become aware soon after our arrival of the sustained battle going on between community and companies to reclaim the right to know what’s happening to their land and the right to chart a different food future in Kauai. The local community radio station, KKCR-FM, was broadcasting interviews and commentary on the situation, including its brilliant program, Back to the Garden, hosted by Kamran Taleb.
The companies that occupy substantial tracts of land on the island – Monsanto, Pioneer, Syngenta, Dow and BASF – lease 25,000 acres out of the state’s total of 280,000 acres of (public and private) agricultural land. These companies have operations on Kauai, Oahu, Maui and Molokai where corn has now usurped sugar cane and pineapple as the major crop. The island’s warm climate allows these companies to harvest three crops a year rather than one per year in the mainland Midwest and this also accelerates the cross-breeding process to develop new seed varieties.
There has been growing anger on the island over the effects of GMO, including exposure to dust and pesticides, while the companies maintain that their existence is essential to sustaining Hawaii’s economy. The companies commissioned a report to show that their operations contribute $264 million to the economy and 1,400 jobs. However, half the land used for GMO production on Kauai is public land upon which zero property tax is paid. These biotech companies are operating on prime agricultural land without producing an edible crop, in a state that currently imports 85 percent of its food.
The impact of pesticides has resulted in situations such as the students in Canyon Middle School, near a Syngenta field, being evacuated and taken to hospital due to noxious odors in the area. This is in a place that has recorded unusually high rates of asthma, cancer and birth defects over the last 15 years, the same period during which these companies apparently also diverted and dumped chemically laden water. Pioneer, DuPont, Dow, Syngenta, and BASF are four of the six companies that control 70 percent of the global pesticide (including herbicide and insecticide) market and essentially the entire market for genetically modified seeds.
The “Right to Know” bill before the Kauai County Council requires disclosure of what pesticides are being used on crops as well as establishing no-spray zones around schools, hospitals, residences, public roads, and waterways. So far the bill has been moved along although even if it is passed the companies will do what they’ve done in situations like this — they will invoke the higher laws of state and federal legislation to overturn local laws and local will. Whether they succeed is a different question.
“We want to know what chemicals these companies are using on crops and that they are spreading across our land, and we have a right to know as members of this community”, said one Kauai resident who recently marched in support of this bill. There were estimates of between 2,000 and 4,000 people who marched out of a total population of 64,000.
Women are at the forefront of the struggle to reclaim the land, due to the impact these policies and practices have on the lives of women, and due to their vision for a different world that is just, democratic and ecologically sustainable. Women have been among the leaders of the efforts within the Hawai’i SEED organization in getting people involved in the three-mile march, while younger women are using social media to drive campaigns on the island, including CoconutGirlWireless and Babes Against Biotech.
This ‘new world is possible’ conviction counters the campaigning by companies and maintains that new ways of working will create new jobs and ways the community can feed itself from its agricultural lands. This approach will also support a healthier community and a sustainable ecological system. Already seed and community activists including Vandana Shiva, environmental lawyer and executive director of the Center for Food Safety, Andrew Kimbrell and Hawaiian activist, Walter Ritte, have spent time with the Kauai community to discuss the central tenet of their work, that seed freedom is food freedom.
This refers to the importance of preserving biological diversity in agricultural policy. Shiva’s work has been informed by the experience of traditional farmers in India who have lost their livelihoods due to industrial agriculture and biotechnology. “On Moloka’i, we are fiercely protective of our natural resources,” Ritte said. “We have a cash economy and a subsistence economy and we need both to survive. If we are not going to learn how to feed ourselves, we are never going to be independent, self-sufficient and sovereign, never. Never.”
In ancient Hawaii, women and men were all keen surfers and chiefs and, before Captain Cook’s invasion, people in Hawaii were lean and fit and many could surf giant waves. Their lives included a system of sea pools to catch fish, of terraces and irrigated fields for taro, yams and sweet potatoes. This was a place where children were taught surfing as a philosophy as much as a water sport and where an informal shell economy operated, as it did in many islands. People had profound knowledge of the sea and its rhythms and were oceanographers before the term was coined. According to the historians, Westwick and Neushal, who wrote The World in the Curl, in ancient Hawaii the word for surf, nalu, also meant to investigate, to search after truth and the origin of things. These writers also refer to the period after Cook’s invasion as being ‘a story of big fish devouring small ones.’
Now that equation may be changing where David trumps Goliath, the tortoise’s steady course wins the day and small fishes survive. By uniting as a small island community, the people of Kauai have taken on these powerful corporations and are forcing the corporate hand of accountability in relation to the chemical experiments being conducted on their land and people. It’s a microcosm of what’s happening in the wider world. This movement reflects the ‘new solidarities’ and coalition building by communities and citizens seeking to reclaim their fundamental human right to clean and public air, land, water and soil – and now also to the night sky and the hush of a night world as they challenge light and noise pollution too. In moving toward this reclaiming, many people are calling on old knowledge and wisdom, renewing slow movements and embracing the re-enchantment that writer David Tacey speaks of to redefine our human identity, our quest for environmental integrity, and our responsibility to community and to each other.
As Andrea Brower says, writing in HuffPost Hawaii on October 12th,
“Though the chemical companies may be devastating our lands and waters, they have not devastated our imaginations. Whether or not we pass a bill, we are growing the momentum, intelligence and creativity of a movement that will continue to take bigger and bolder steps. The food movement, locally and globally, is rising, and it isn’t going away. And we will win, because the world we are fighting for is what the vast majority of people want, and we are simply reminding people how to believe that it is in fact possible to make that world.”
Through all this I’ve been reading a book called The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light. Its author, Paul Bogard, presents an intimate and poetic portrayal of how we have surrendered the night to light and noise in many parts of the world. He documents how groups of committed citizens are engaged in their own campaigns and movements for dark sky and starry sky communities. Bogard travels to many of these communities to capture the stories of these campaigns and to give us a sense of what we might do in our own lives to reclaim the night. In so doing, he provides a deeper awareness of what it means to be human.
Here are just a few paragraphs:
‘Sometimes on a desert night like this, or on clear winter lake nights when stars stand in three dimensional beauty – closer stars closer, farther stars farther away, and it feels as though I could reach my arms into them, or that falling from Earth would mean falling among them – I see how someone could hear stars. And I wonder, do I miss hearing stars because I don’t get myself into dark country often enough, or live surrounded by noise, or simply because I don’t pay attention?’
(in Death Valley, California) ‘I feel as though I’m falling, and I have to pull away to find my balance in the dark. The ground on which I’m standing, the cloth of stars above. The great nebula in Orion’s belt, the Pleiades, Jupiter so bright and clear it makes me laugh. And then here comes Sirius. The brightest star we ever see, and – because it’s so low, the atmosphere like a prism – flashing like a pinwheel sparkler, green and red and purple and blue. Then super-bright shooting stars, like green-yellow flares falling from the sky. And then for me, for the first time, the Andromeda Galaxy in clear detail – the most distant object we can see without a lens, at two million light-years away – the photons that have been traveling toward earth all this time now touching the back of my eyes.’
(on Vincent Van Gogh’s painting, The Starry Night) ”I love the story this painting tells, of a small dark town, a few yellow-orange gaslights in house windows, under a giant swirling and waving blue-green sky. This is a painting of our world from before night has been pushed back to the forest and the seas, from back when sleepy towns slept without streetlights.’
All of this is a form of asking us to pay attention to the world we want for ourselves and for our children and how we are experiencing our lives as humans now –are we feeling a sense of joy, potentiality and energy for the possible and are we helping to make this possible for others?
Or do we merely feel that we’re existing, powerless to the greater forces and systems we think dominate our lives and thoughts and future?
This invitation to aliveness and connectivity is the greatest offer we have.
Hawaii / San Francisco