Feeding An Island: Sustainable Molokai Restores Indigenous Agriculture

This article was first published on the Innovators Peak blog in November, 2014.

Photo courtesy of Sustainable Molokai

Long before Hawaii’s vibrant island of Molokai became a hotspot for tourists and corporate agriculture, native residents knew the island as ‘aina momona, or abundant land.

Molokai stretches only 38 miles long, but ancient Hawaiians engineered a highly advanced system of terracing which worked in harmony with the topography and climate of the local landscape.

Now, 73% of the island’s residents can claim some heritage to these brilliant ancestors. And while much of the outside world is unaware of this tiny paradise, it is steeped in a complex history of environmental exploitation.

Once colonists discovered the wealth they could reap from the abundance of sugar cane growing in Molokai’s soil, the island underwent a legion of changes. The slice of paradise became known for its fertile landscape, a reputation that drew in agricultural giants from around the world. And while the subsequent presence of industrial fruit corporations Dole and Libby helped the little land become one of the biggest pineapple producers in the world, such industrialization inevitably bore dire environmental consequences.

Luckily, a local grassroots organization called Sustainable Molokai has been working hard to restore and protect the island’s precious resources. Such initiatives include implementing a farm-to-school program and building a distribution center for fresh produce. Such projects are made possible by The First Nations Development Institute, or FNDI, a Denver-based organization that empowers Native Americans with the funds and resources they need to take execute critical projects in their communities.

Photo courtesy of Sustainable Molokai

So in an effort to reestablish the farming techniques native to the island, Sustainable Molokai dove into research to find out how they could best help the local community. After a multitude of surveys and interviews with farmers and storeowners, the organization realized what was missing.

“One thing that became very apparent was that there was no connection between the user and the consumer,” says Emilia Noordhoek, Executive Director of Sustainable Molokai.

Without a distribution center, it was nearly impossible for local farmers to reach the communities who longed for the island’s fresh, bountiful produce.

“If you wanted to buy something from the farmer you had to contact each individual one. Then you had to make a bid and see if they could deliver it. It became such an issue for the stores and restaurants that no one was using any local products.”

Photo courtesy of Sustainable Molokai

Inhabitants of the once abundant land were importing 97% of their food from other places.

Another underlying problem contributed to the complexity of local food access. The unsustainable farming practices of corporate food giants polluted the formerly pristine landscape with chemicals and introduced mass erosion to the steep terrain. During rainfall, such erosion leads to landslides and loss of the nutrients essential to the survival of native plants.

Photo Courtesy of Sustainable Molokai

With this type of erosion occurring, it made sense to reinstate terrace farming into the land. But Sustainable Molokai still needed to figure out where to start carrying out the culturally familiar practice in a way that would not disrupt the island’s economy. To begin, Sustainable Molokai implemented the Molokai School Garden Network. The system includes a three-acre garden with eight terraces and a farm-to-school “fresh fruits and veggies” snack program.

Sustainable Molokai also has access to a 17 acre plot of conservation land, where they plan to establish a restorative agricultural center with native hardwoods such as structural bamboo, a useful building resource. The organization has a partner in Maui who has already begun growing 20 acres and built a steady bamboo structure that will act as a distribution center.

Noordhoek admits that she can attribute the execution of these projects to help from the First Nations Development Institute in Denver (2432 Main Street, 2nd Floor).

“FNDI has been so incredibly supportive of the work we do. It’s like no other relationship with a funder I’ve ever had” she added.

Photo courtesy of Sustainable Molokai

Sustainable Molokai’s efforts are not without challenges — the presence of industrial farms still creates social and environmental problems that work against the organization’s goals. However, Sustainable Molokai’s ambitions remain strong.

“Our goal is within the next 12 months to be able to have a presence in every grocery store and restaurant on island. It’s not only the responsibility of knowing how to take care of the land, but also the ability to harvest from it. We need to use what we can from technology to help create more fusion between cultural heritage and the modern world,” Noordhoek adds.

As with any rural community, Emilia felt at home as soon as she stepped on the island.

“Since the moment I’ve moved here, I always felt that I’ve been part of the community and I have such a great hope for the leaders who were born and raised here. So many of them are coming back with a great intent to keep the whole culture intact,” she says.

Despite a constant struggle to compete against the environmental consequences of an ever-industrializing world, organizations such as Sustainable Molokai help ensure that the future of the lush, tropical island remains bright.

Photo courtesy of Sustainable Molokai