Historically, Hawaiian lands were divided into ahupua‘a, adjacent watersheds stretching from mountains to sea. While communities once farmed, cared for, and sustained a spiritual land ethic toward ahupua‘a holistically from mauka (mountainside) to makai (seaside), today many are no longer the clean and productive watersheds they once were as these traditional practices have fallen away. In He‘eia, an ahupua‘a on the island of O‘ahu, several nonprofit organizations are working to revitalize a cohesive ahupua‘a management system that can serve as a model for other ahupua‘a in Hawai‘i and around the Pacific, as well as serve as an example of holistic management practices in the twenty-first century. In the uplands, one organization works to restore the ahupua‘a’s stream by removing invasive plant species and replanting native flora. In the kula lands (flatlands), another group works to restore the wetland that filters inflow into the bay by planting kalo (taro) and revitalizing traditional Hawaiian polyculture. At the seashore, a third nonprofit is working to restore an 800-year-old fishpond with the intent to promote food security while conducting research on Hawaiian history and water quality. All three groups run extensive educational programs for locals and visitors of all ages and work to keep pollutants out of the watershed and stream as it flows downhill and out onto the reef. By weaving modern technologies, tools, and information together with stories, songs, and attitudes that embody deep and ancient ties between mankind and land, this creative and cooperative management is returning food security, sustainable culture, and resilience to the hands of the community.

KEY MESSAGE

Students who participate in this case study will

  1. Consider and design a set of best practices for clear, consistent communication with diverse audiences engaged in watershed restoration, with methods including

    • nonjudgmental deep listening, empathy, and respect in approaching complex, stakeholder-led, collaborative conservation projects;

    • engaging in two-way learning with diverse perspectives.

  2. Plan hypothetical, big-picture project directions, options, and outcomes and break them down.

    • Choose incremental, achievable action steps toward larger long-term objectives.

    • Brainstorm strategies to gain insight into individual motivations and group dynamics.

  3. List possible methods of achieving greater transparency and equity in decision-making, and project funding and resource allocations.

  4. Assemble a basic, contemporary toolkit for beginning grassroots conservation collaborations.

INTRODUCTION

This case study examines ongoing restoration activities in a watershed called He‘eia on the windward side of O‘ahu, just ten miles northeast of Hawaii’s rapidly expanding capital, Honolulu. This site is an ancient ahupua‘a, a land division cared for and farmed by Native Hawaiian families for centuries prior to European contact. When a few ambitious young Hawaiians saw this space overgrown with invasive species and disregarded as a dumping ground, they consulted with their kupuna (respected elders), and undertook intensive projects to restore the land. Along the way, they sought to heal Hawaiian communities by enhancing relationships between people and the land they depend on. At present, as much as 90% of Hawai‘i’s food is brought to the islands from elsewhere, creating an unsustainable dependence on shipping and corporate agriculture [1]. The heavy footprints of tourism, development, pollution and climate change, including the looming spectres of sea level rise and food and water insecurity, have endowed these projects with urgency and garnered them media and governmental attention. The He‘eia ahupua‘a is currently part of a long-term coordination initiative by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) called the Sentinel Site Program. The aim of this program is to assess and predict the impacts of specific aspects of climate change and empower stakeholders to collaborate on grassroots solutions by centralizing available resources (people, data, and funding). Together with two World Heritage Sites, Midway Island and French Frigate Shoals in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, He‘eia comprises the Hawaiian Islands Sentinel Site Cooperative, one of five such cooperatives in the United States. The He‘eia watershed is also an important watershed within the newly established reserve called the He‘eia National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR). An ambitious new management plan for the He‘eia NERR sets out strategies to protect area species of concern, reduce invasive species, and achieve other goals to restore ecological harmony [2].

FIGURE 1.

Map of He‘eia Ahupua‘a (3638-01) from He‘eia National Estuarine Research Reserve Management Plan (credit H.T. Harvey and Associates, Ecological Consultants for NOAA NERRS)

FIGURE 1.

Map of He‘eia Ahupua‘a (3638-01) from He‘eia National Estuarine Research Reserve Management Plan (credit H.T. Harvey and Associates, Ecological Consultants for NOAA NERRS)

FIGURE 2.

Map comparing the larger area of the He‘eia ahupua‘a with the He‘eia NERR (3638-01) from He‘eia National Estuarine Research Reserve Management Plan (credit H.T. Harvey and Associates, Ecological Consultants for NOAA NERRS)

FIGURE 2.

Map comparing the larger area of the He‘eia ahupua‘a with the He‘eia NERR (3638-01) from He‘eia National Estuarine Research Reserve Management Plan (credit H.T. Harvey and Associates, Ecological Consultants for NOAA NERRS)

Critical to our case study is the understanding that Native Hawaiian cultural values are ecosystem values. The three grassroots nonprofit organizations at work to restore the He‘eia watershed are strongly rooted in these values. “We don’t talk about resource management or stewardship,” says Kihei Nahale-a, director of educational initiatives at the native plant nursery, Papahana Kuaola. “We actually look at it as source kinship, where we are families with the land.” Limitations in funding, staff and volunteers, equipment, and time constrain the ambitious effort to practice this source kinship and restore hundreds of acres of land and sea. To reestablish the robustness of an ecosystem facing the pressures of a burgeoning population in a changing climate, as well as heal the interdependent community issues of food insecurity, underemployment, and cultural fragmentation, this effort must champion transparent communication and holistic decision-making practices.

The purpose of this case study is to acquaint students with examples of some of the values, challenges, cultural considerations, and rewards of watershed restoration projects and of working in collaboration with traditional communities and a complex web of diverse multi-stakeholder partners.

CASE EXAMINATION

This case provides a summary of grassroots conservation efforts in the He‘eia ahupua‘a on the Hawaiian island of O‘ahu, and invites students to imagine participating as volunteers, interns, or future professionals in the field, working in collaboration with diverse individuals and groups on restoring a critical island ecosystem.

The Ahupua‘a System

Historically, all Hawaiian lands were held in trust by the highest king or chief for the whole population [3]. Islands were divided into ahupua‘a, wedge-shaped ecological and social units consisting of stream-bearing watersheds stretching from mountains to sea. Ahupua‘a were self-sustaining and varied in size from 100 to 100,000 acres, with less arable land allocated into larger divisions. Ahu were altars of stones that marked the boundaries between ahupua‘a. An ancient, well-cared-for ahupua‘a fed its residents and bound them together through a shared land ethic whereby decision-making was based on what was best for the local families and larger community.

Ahupua‘a such as He‘eia contain lands that run the spectrum of steep uplands to flat lowlands. A study by Kagawa and Vitousek [4] compared yields from plantings of traditional crops at various levels and in different seasons; their findings suggest that Hawaiian agrarians used the lower elevation areas in the winter and uplands in spring to maximize production of staple foods such as ‘uala (sweet potatoes, Ipomoea batatas) and strategically planted different strains of kalo (taro, Colocasia esculenta) in upland and lowland areas, allowing allowing for more sustainable yields through the seasons [1, 4].

Ecosystem Values are Cultural Values

Traditional values are more important than ever; the resurgence of these values informs current efforts to restore ahupua‘a. The traditional management system protected upland waters as they flowed to the sea, and the system included a water master. Stream protection was paramount, and in Hawaiian the words for water (wai) and wealth (waiwai) are inextricably linked. In a study detailing a community Invasive Algae Removal (IAR) project in Kuli‘ou‘ou watershed in east O‘ahu of Maunalua Bay, recent work by Kittinger et al. [5] explains the benefits of restoration. These benefits are both economic and noneconomic. The economic benefits include temporary and permanent jobs, household support, improved fishing access and abundance, and cleaner beaches. Important sociocultural benefits (termed cultural ecosystem services) include health and fitness, stronger social ties, recreational benefits, and the passing down of traditional knowledge. The ahupua‘a are founded on a series of principles dealing with preservation and respect, as well as efficiency [6]. Kittinger et al. [5] describe these principles (see Table 1).

TABLE 1.

Native Hawaiian concepts and terms used to describe sociocultural dimensions of an adjacent restoration project (Invasive Algae Removal or IAR) adapted from Kittinger et al. [5], used with permission

Hawaiian conceptDescription
Restoring the ‘āina The importance of understanding the land (‘āina); restoring the land as a means for restoring and revitalizing individuals and communities that depend on the land and its resources 
Uka-kai connections Recognizing the connections between uka (“mountain”) and kai (“sea”) and maintaining a balance in the system holistically 
Ahupua‘a management The need to manage resources and the environment in a place-based system that takes into account linked uka-kai watershed systems (ahupua‘a) and the knowledge systems surrounding them 
Sharing, maintaining and building mana‘o The sharing of traditional knowledge, heritage, and cultural ways of knowing (mana‘o), between generations. Intergenerational perspectives and personal experiences, transferred to keiki (children) from kupuna (community elders or ancestors) 
Restoring kuleana The importance of recognizing and adopting the privilege of responsibility given to you (kuleana), as in stewardship for a place 
Mālama To care for or nurture (e.g., He‘eia, Kanoehe Bay, Maunalua Bay, Hawaii) 
Hawaiian conceptDescription
Restoring the ‘āina The importance of understanding the land (‘āina); restoring the land as a means for restoring and revitalizing individuals and communities that depend on the land and its resources 
Uka-kai connections Recognizing the connections between uka (“mountain”) and kai (“sea”) and maintaining a balance in the system holistically 
Ahupua‘a management The need to manage resources and the environment in a place-based system that takes into account linked uka-kai watershed systems (ahupua‘a) and the knowledge systems surrounding them 
Sharing, maintaining and building mana‘o The sharing of traditional knowledge, heritage, and cultural ways of knowing (mana‘o), between generations. Intergenerational perspectives and personal experiences, transferred to keiki (children) from kupuna (community elders or ancestors) 
Restoring kuleana The importance of recognizing and adopting the privilege of responsibility given to you (kuleana), as in stewardship for a place 
Mālama To care for or nurture (e.g., He‘eia, Kanoehe Bay, Maunalua Bay, Hawaii) 

Conservation Stewards

In He‘eia ahupua‘a, several nonprofit organizations are working toward a vision of an ahupua‘a management system that can serve as a model for other ahupua‘a in Hawaii and around the Pacific. The groups focus restoration activities on three watershed segments:

  • He‘eia’s uplands, where a native nursery group works to restore the ahupua‘a’s stream by removing invasive plant species and replant native flora.

  • The kula lands, or flatlands, where another grassroots group works to restore the wetland that filters inflow into the bay by planting kalo (taro) and revitalizing traditional Hawaiian polyculture (featuring a mix of crops planted together to reduce pests and maximize water retention—the opposite of monoculture).

  • At the seashore, where a third community organization is working to restore an 800-year-old fishpond to promote community food security while conducting research on Hawaiian history and water quality.

Papahana Kuaola, the native plant nursery in the uplands of He‘eia, is focused on invasive species removal and cultivation of native species. In addition, Papahana Kuaola’s educational programs serve several local schools. “The mission itself is about restoration and sustainability through traditional Hawaiian knowledge,” says Kihei Nahalea, director of Papahana Kuaola’s Kupualau program, a curriculum initiative focused on developing and implementing “educational programs and curriculum that honor the connection between kānaka [man], ‘āina [land], and ākua [conscious spiritual entity].”

We don’t talk about resource management or stewardship…. We actually look at it as ‘source kinship’: that we are families with the land. We try to develop our familial relationship with the source. We look at data in all kinds of ways, and we look at all kinds of different things as data. We don’t only look at numbers: we look at songs, we look at chants, we look at histories, we look at mo‘olelo [myths], to tell us and share something about the space, and how we should react and how we should act in the space…. We take out thousands of invasive species, we restore the taro patches, we restore the stream and replant thousands of native plants, and it looks really beautiful. And that is a success; it is something to be very proud of.

I think the biggest success is starting to see the development now of people engaging in that space in a way that is honorific and restorative, not only to the land, but to themselves. We talk a lot about…restoring the land with the people that need the most restoration work themselves. Heal the land by healing yourself. [7]

The main focus of Kako‘o ‘Oiwi’s work with community volunteer groups is to steadily convert the midlands of He‘eia, which until recently was a wasteland—neglected, polluted, and receiving litter from nearby developments, into a clean wetland and productive polyculture site, with an emphasis on different strains of kalo (taro root). Kalo is a subsistence food that, like rice, grows well entirely in water that is monitored for sediment, coliforms, and other water quality standards.

Paepae ‘o He‘eia’s main focus is restoring a traditional Hawaiian fishpond, for the eventual purpose of community aquaculture. Removing invasive mangroves and algae, or limu, from Kane‘ohe Bay, has been a mission in tandem with this ideal. Three limu are invasive and must be removed: Kappaphycus alvarezii, Gracilaria salicornia, and Acanthophora spicifera.

These three organizations are not operating in isolation. Their restoration project spans several neighborhoods, and is adjacent to ongoing development, private residences, business interests, and coastal tourism. At least nine government and university partners, as well as organizations including The Nature Conservancy, stand by to assist with funding and technical support, and seek to highlight the area’s progress as a template for community-based restoration [8].

The NOAA Sentinel Site Program of which He‘ieia ahupua‘a is part seeks to balance conservation efforts with societal cultural and economic sustainability. To advance research and protection of this unique area, the coastal area of He‘eia was designated in January 2017 as the 29th National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) and the first new NERR in six years [8]. This designation protects 1,385 acres of upland forest and grassland, wetlands, reefs, seagrass, and important historic and cultural resources. The He‘eia NERR management plan (2016–2021) actively integrates the traditional Hawaiian ecosystem management approach with contemporary estuarine management practices and is based on adaptive management with five-year review cycles [6]. The He‘eia NERR consists of only the seaside region of He‘eia ahupua‘a, the topic of this case study. The rest of the watershed, comprised of a formidable mosaic of contrasting private and public land uses, is managed in part by conservation organizations given in Table 2.

TABLE 2.

The nonprofit organizations (all designated 501c(3))

OrganizationAcreageFoundedMission
Papahana Kuaola
Began as a college class at University of Hawaii; students founded the nonprofit and now teach the class 
63 2007 “to create quality learning focused on Hawaii’s cultural and natural resources, environmental restoration, and economic sustainability fully integrated with Hawaiian knowledge in order to exemplify a lifestyle respectful of kānaka [people] ‘āina [land], and ākua [spirit].”
Organization:
http://papahanakuaola.com/ 
Kako‘o ‘Oiwi
Is a group of dozens of partners dedicated to restoring a hoi, native marshland 
405 2009 “to perpetuate the cultural and spiritual practices of Native Hawaiians” focusing on traditional polyculture
Organization:
http://kakoooiwi.org/ 
PaePae o‘ He‘eia
Began in 2001 from an effort by young people to revive an important aquaculture site 
133 2001 “to care for He‘eia Fishpond—an ancient Hawaiian fishpond”
Organization:
http://paepaeoheeia.org/ 
OrganizationAcreageFoundedMission
Papahana Kuaola
Began as a college class at University of Hawaii; students founded the nonprofit and now teach the class 
63 2007 “to create quality learning focused on Hawaii’s cultural and natural resources, environmental restoration, and economic sustainability fully integrated with Hawaiian knowledge in order to exemplify a lifestyle respectful of kānaka [people] ‘āina [land], and ākua [spirit].”
Organization:
http://papahanakuaola.com/ 
Kako‘o ‘Oiwi
Is a group of dozens of partners dedicated to restoring a hoi, native marshland 
405 2009 “to perpetuate the cultural and spiritual practices of Native Hawaiians” focusing on traditional polyculture
Organization:
http://kakoooiwi.org/ 
PaePae o‘ He‘eia
Began in 2001 from an effort by young people to revive an important aquaculture site 
133 2001 “to care for He‘eia Fishpond—an ancient Hawaiian fishpond”
Organization:
http://paepaeoheeia.org/ 

Objectives and Challenges

These stakeholders work tirelessly to weave modern technologies, tools, and science together with stories, songs, and attitudes that embody deep and ancient ties between humans and land. However, this creative and cooperative management is faced with several challenges.

As a shared objective, monitoring and improving water quality is of great concern to all of the stewards of the He‘eia watershed and Hawaii as a whole. Runoff from nearby development, sewage, and farming operations has contaminated He‘eia stream with fecal coliform, nitrates, and phosphates, which in turn limit the dissolved oxygen necessary to sustain freshwater organisms and safe drinking water [9]. The three nonprofit organizations discussed above, as well as partners from The Nature Conservancy, the University of Hawaii, and even young field trip participants from educational land stewards Kamehameha Schools, have collaborated to monitor levels of coliform bacteria, dissolved oxygen, nitrates, pH, phosphates, temperature, turbidity, and biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) throughout the watershed, noting that the increase of robust wetlands upstream is inversely correlated with the levels of the toxic compounds closer to the stream’s delta, where food is produced [9, 10].

Another major ecological challenge faced by all players in the larger conservation effort is the crowding influence of these invasive species and their direct competition with native plants, birds, and fish. The list of invasive plants on O‘ahu is exhaustive. Fierce foreign competitors such as fire tree, Morella faya, and strawberry guava, Psidium, contribute to erosion and edge out native species at alarming rates. Four species of endangered water birds use the wetlands (Hawaiian gallinule, Gallinula chloropus sandvicensis; Hawaiian duck or koloa, Anas wyvilliana; Hawaiian coot, Fulica alai; and Hawaiian stilt, Himantopus mexicanus knudseni). However, the wetlands have been invaded by dense areas of California grass that block open water preferred by native birds and necessary to their survival. A description of the He‘eia fishpond notes that the invasive mangrove Rizophora mangle introduced in 1922 quickly ran rampant after a flood in 1965 destroyed 600 feet of the kuapā (wall of the fishpond). The fishpond, in the process of being restored, produces ‘ama‘ama (mullet, Mugil cephalus), moi (threadfin, Polydactus sexfilis) and tilapia—the yield of which inversely correlates with the amount of Rizopora obstructing the wall. [11]

All three grassroots organizations host regular community work days to achieve the physical tasks required to achieve the restoration objectives. Among the physical challenges these groups seek to overcome through their restoration efforts are damage from severe storm events, improved flood attenuation, sea level rise, erosion, and pollution in He‘eia Stream. Among the social challenges they seek to address indirectly or directly are food security, maintaining and reviving and passing down cultural traditions, and displacement. Extensive volunteer campaigns are conducted to involve local residents in the work, as well as educational programs implemented for local schoolchildren, community members, working retreats, and tourists. The specific restoration methods depend on the community organization’s physical location in the watershed and the related objectives listed in Table 2.

Additional challenges include communication difficulties, shortages of money, staff, volunteers, and an ever-changing landscape due to development and climate change. An ambitious collaboration between individuals and groups is necessary to meet these challenges.

DISCUSSION

It takes time for diverse communities to build trust; in Hawaii this is as true as anywhere else. In Hawaii, some native Hawaiians may view nonnative community members and visitors (including government officials and scientists) with suspicion or distrust, understandable when one appreciates Hawaii’s history of colonization by outsiders with very different cultural associations, priorities, and assumptions. Honesty of all parties about their individual interests and investment, as well as possible time-scales for restoration goals, provides a crucial foundation to successful discussions and robust relationships.

Large-scale collaborative projects such as those in He‘eia have had success and sustained momentum when they have focused on small, specific, attainable steps rather than over-emphasizing lofty goals. Two examples include coral reef restoration through removal of invasive algae [5] and the long-term, collaborative restoration of Tampa Bay’s seagrass beds in Florida [12]. Transparency and meaningful, continuous dialogue among players with various agendas and historical tensions can mean the success or failure of a cooperative movement. In a world of ever-fluctuating variables, recognizing the limits of planning and control is also paramount.

The urgency of the big picture issues at hand (clean and abundant water, global climate change, community food security) underscores the importance of the capacity to make efficient but effective decisions. Urgency must be tempered with sensitivity and care, especially regarding the challenges and synergies of integrating Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) with a Western scientific approach. As one astute observer put it, anyone involved with the decision-making process would do well to remember that “it’s messy, and you are part of the mess.” The “mess” referred to includes complex and changeable ecological, social, economic, and political systems. Historical political or turf tensions between groups, as well as differences in cultural viewpoints, goals and visions, leadership styles, and skill sets make finding harmony and maximizing the capacities of each team member a rewarding challenge for which every player must take responsibility.

Resilience is key for the individuals and groups involved in community stakeholder restorations. Restoration workers must note that ecological need is immune to common cultural time-cycles (e.g., election cycles, funding cycles, research project timelines), yet a successful steward will maximize such cycles. In the sometimes-bleak tone of the current environmental dialogue, highlighting successes is almost as vital as analyzing them and seeking to replicate their central tenets because examples of success create a focal point for teams involved, and potential examples for groups who would undertake similar restorations elsewhere. Highlighting successes can also help educate and persuade present and future partners, regardless of their role (educational institutions, foundation, corporate, or agency funding and technical support).

CASE STUDY QUESTIONS

Theoretical questions to stimulate critical thinking and discussion about collaborative ecological restoration

  • Imagine, and sketch out the basic goals, of a community restoration project such as the ones this case describes. Brainstorm some lofty, idealistic environmental goals. Then focus more specifically on concrete action steps toward each goal. What are some examples of small, specific, attainable objectives on which organizations can focus? How will improvement be measured—ecosystem function? Water quality?

  • How can decision-making processes and bodies effectively integrate TEK and western science, paying respects to the strengths of both?

  • What are some listening strategies to support meaningful exchange? e.g., how to:

    • stay present when surrounded by conflict?

    • be as impartial as possible?

    • act with diplomacy and tact?

    • continuously confirm your interpretation of a statement with the source?

Questions dealing with ecological concepts

  • How might the agricultural activities upstream affect the aquaculture in the fishpond? Can project design benefit both agriculture and water quality?

  • How might the removal of invasive algae affect the ecosystem of the bay?

    • How could the removed limu be recycled or used productively to close the loop in agriculture? (hint: algae is full of nutrients such as nitrogen)

  • How would you assess the role of humans in the ecosystem of He‘eia? Has it changed? How is the human role culturally determined? Does the Native Hawaiian world view have something to teach others about the human role, short and long-term?

Optional, additional discussion questions: Imagine being part of a collaborative stakeholder ecological restoration project

  • How do we know we’re making a difference? What does a healthy relationship between community and land look like? Is our vision the same as that of other stakeholders?

  • Using the listening strategies you came up with, brainstorm good communication practices specifically tailored to help heal divisions that impede progress.

  • How can we include the maximum number of perspectives at the table and continue to grow this number (even after our project is underway)?

  • How can we, as biologists, ecological engineers, planners and stewards, be resilient to stochastic events (ecological, meteorological, or human) that set back progress?

  • How can we manage for the future (post-completion)?

  • How can we achieve continuity through change (time-scales, personnel, budgets) while maintaining flexibility of objectives to meet needs?

    • How do we manage community expectations about timeline to success?

  • Brainstorm some roles and perspectives and what their expectations and areas of expertise or control might be. Use tables in the Teaching Notes to get you started.

AUTHOR CONTRIBUTIONS

The authors contributed equally to the case study manuscript.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

The authors wish to acknowledge

  • Papahana Kuaola

  • Kako‘o ‘Oiwi

  • PaePae o‘ He‘eia

  • NOAA Pacific Services Center

  • NOAA scholarships team

  • Smith College Environmental Science and Policy

FUNDING

No funding was provided for preparation of this case study. Funding was originally provided to Anna M. Campbell (summers 2013, 2014) for her internships and film project with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Pacific Services Center, Honolulu, Hawaii and Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts.

COMPETING INTERESTS

The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

SUPPORTING INFORMATION

Teaching Notes S1. Community-Based Watershed Restoration in He‘eia (He‘eia ahupua‘a), O‘ahu, Hawaiian Islands Teaching Notes.

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