Hawai’i is where the idea for permaculture was born. Long before the word was even coined by its founder, Bill Mollison, the original inhabitants of Hawai’i created a system of agriculture that regeneratively produced more than enough food for all.
Practicing Permaculture in Hawai’i reconnects us to the knowledge of the past. How did pre contact Hawaiians cultivate the land to provide the people so much abundance? We try to answer that question everyday, as we observe and interact with the land and utilize the toolkit that permaculture gives us.
Related: One of my favorite books about plants in Hawaii is Plants of Old Hawaii. It has a wealth of knowledge about many of the crops that the first Polynesian settlers brought with them on their canoes.
The Original Hawai’i Permaculturalists
To be able to feed several hundred thousand people on a finite area of land, thousands of miles from any other landmass, you have to come up with a system that can feed itself as much as it can feed people.
To accomplish this goal, land in Hawai’i was first divided up into land divisions know as Ahupua’a, which encompassed 2 ridgelines on either side of a “valley” from mauka to makai, or top of the mountain to the sea. Many of us already know of this concept by another name, a watershed.
By dividing the land up in this way, people would have access to everything they would need to survive, from hardwood lumber deep in the mountain forests to fish from the sea. They would also have the ability to see first hand how land management upstream affected things downstream.
So, over time, they would go on to plant extensive food belts with breadfruit and banana, develop sustainable aquaculture in the form of the Kalo patches known as lo’i and huge fish farms not seen anywhere else in the world.
The system was so productive, that the people had many hours of leisure everyday where they would partake in games, artisan handicrafts and even surfing!
Unfortunately, this system did not last.
From Food Independant To Completely Dependant
Soon after Western contact, people began to flock to the islands, mainly because they saw opportunity. These early transplants to Hawai’i saw a rich fertile land that they could use to generate a cash crop to ship across the world, sugar.
To do this they displaced the Hawaiian people from their land, took control of governance, redirected water and destroyed any semblance of sustainable agriculture. Sugar was king and all resources would go towards its production.
In the process, soil eroded, water dried up, fish populations plummeted and the ability for the people of Hawai’i to feed themselves was gone. Hawai’i went from a place that provided 100% of it’s needs, to a place where those needs were now coming from 90% imports.
Everyday, the problem continues to grow worse. With Covid, it became increasingly apparent that this system was broken, but still there is inaction when it comes to changing things.
But there are a few out there working to be that change and bring Hawai’i back to its former glory.
How Permaculture Fits Into Healing The ‘Aina
There is a movement afoot in the islands of Hawai’i. People who call themselves Permaculturalists, Farmers, Fishermen, Crafters are rediscovering ways to build food resiliency back into the islands.
Fish ponds are being restored. Water rights are being reestablished. Monocrops are turning into polycultures. People are growing food in their front yards and backyards. Kalo is becoming a popular food again as is ‘Ulu. People are rediscovering the wisdom of their ancestors.
But there is still a lot of work to be done. The future of Hawai’i will have to transform from a tourist and import dependent economy into one less focused on tourists and more focused on producing for itself.
Work can be fulfilling. It doesn’t have to be waiting on entitled tourists or serving up mystery meat at the local McDonalds. Work can be raising chickens for local food, restoring forests to enhance water security, developing fishponds for regenerative seafood production.
Where To Learn More About Permaculture In Hawai’i
Permaculture in Hawai’i is more than just a buzzword. The principles of permaculture are practiced everyday by people throughout the islands. Oftentimes you’ll hear people talk about permaculture waiting in the checkout line at the store or just hanging out at the beach. Hawai’i is a Permaculture paradise.
Because of that, there are many great places where you can apprentice to learn more about permaculture and sustainable food systems. I’m a firm believer in learning from those who have found success utilizing permaculture for those are the best teachers. The other places just teach you theory.
Permaculture In Action – Oahu
Ma’o Organics – A successful organic farm located on the Wai’anae coast on the island of Oahu. They have a job training program that trains farmers to succeed, utilizing permaculture principles and ancient hawaiian practices.
Ka’ala Farm – Also located in Wai’anae, this farm is growing food and training others how to do it. They employ the Ahupua’a mentality of providing for the land, mauka to makai.
Waihuena Farm – Located on the north shore of Oahu, this farm has a great apprentice program close to some amazing waves on the north shore. If you are looking to grow food and surf, check this farm out.
Permaculture In Action – Hawai’i Island
‘Aina University – Uitilizing best practices from ancient hawaiian stewardship, this developing farm just outside of Hilo on the island of Hawai’i is a great farm to check out. Great positivity and solid work ethic has transformed this land into one of Hilo’s finest farm projects
Hip Agriculture – Located in Hawi on the northern tip of the island, Hip Ag runs a successful internship program that provides food for market and educates the community about permaculture practices. These guys are doing cool things in an amazingly beautiful part of the island.
Hale O Lono – Located in Keaukaha, a small beachside community in Hilo, Hale o Lon is working to restore a fishpond that was once flourishing over 100 years ago. Learn more about traditional hawaiian fishponds, aquaculture and providing food from the sea.
Permaculture In Action – Maui
Maui Ohana Gardens – The idea is to put a food garden into every home. This permaculture project takes agriculture out of the field and puts it into the home. You can learn not just how to grow food, but to intertwine the social aspect of permaculture as well.
Permaculture In Action – Kauai
Permaculture Kauai – Looking to start a nursery? Permaculture Kauai is using permaculture practices to develop a nursery that provides plant stock for the people of Kauai to grow food of their own. Much needed in all of our communities.
Permaculture in Action – Moloka’i
‘Aina Momona – Join this Native Hawaiian group to restore fishponds and develop traditional agricultural practices on the island of Moloka’i. They are doing some amazing work to restore a degraded place on Moloka’i. Lots to learn on this project.
Online Hawai’i Permaculture Resource
Homesteadin’ Hawai’i Youtube Channel – If you can’t make it out to Hawai’i to work with one of these organizations, check out the Homesteadin’ Hawai’i Youtube channel where permaculture in Hawai’i is highlighted in almost every video. This channel is quickly becoming the go to resource for online permaculture in Hawai’i.