Mahi Pono did not tell the public what he plans to plant, but demands water to do it anyway
Editor’s Note: This post has been updated since its original post for clarity and to include comments from Sean Lester and Tiare Lawrence.
[MauiTime first broke the story of the sale of Alexander & Baldwin’s old sugarcane lands in November 2018. Our ongoing Changing Maui: Mahi Pono series investigates the new owners of these massive land holdings and the changes they will bring to Maui. It is part of Changing Maui, a larger series on the changes facing Maui County.]
WWell, Mahi Pono’s charm offensive is over. Just five weeks after purchasing 56,000 acres of farmland and watersheds on Maui for $ 262 million, the California-controlled, Canadian pension fund-funded company apparently ended its brief “listening tour” “. An email from Sean Lester, a social activist-turned-consultant for Mahi Pono, recently toured Maui’s agricultural and environmental circles and, to say the least, eyebrows were raised. Gone is the mask “We are stewards of the earth”. Under? A Slaving Lord of the Rings Gollum whose “Precious”, in this case, is water. Lots and lots of water in East Maui.
First, a bit of contextualization. East Maui water has been the source of contention and legislation since the first water lease was granted by King David Kalakaua in 1876. Big producers like Claus Spreckels and Alexander & Baldwin have asked for the water. cheap water for Central Maui’s cane and took it; Farmers in East Maui needed water for more traditional crops like kalo, as well as other cultural practices, and lost it. Over the years, the constant diversions associated with sugar cane have emptied the streams and ruined the ecosystem. In 2018, a 17-year water diversion battle ended when the state’s water commission ordered full restoration of water flow to ten streams in East Maui, as well as limited or no diversions of seven other streams so habitat can be restored.
It was a great victory for kalo farmers, fishermen, hunters and cultural practitioners – at least on paper. Restoration of flows has been slow. A&B dragged its feet to implement the state-imposed changes, but still wanted its water permits renewed – even after they stopped growing sugarcane. Arguments continue over how the state continued to grant A&B one-year “revocable” water permits even though the company did not fully meet the requirements to obtain these permits. And the three-year limit on one-year revocable licenses expires this year.
In short: it’s an unholy mess.
Enter Mahi Pono (meaning ‘to grow up or cultivate properly’) who began wooing lawmakers on the first day of the 2019 session. The results of this effort were immediate. The bills were quickly introduced by Senator Gil Keith-Agaran (D-Central Maui) in the Senate (SB1116); and Upcountry Rep. Kyle Yamashita was among the supporters of the House version, HB1326. The identical bills amend an existing water lease law by essentially sweeping away any time constraints or challenges that could slow down the granting of “revocable water permits” to companies like, well, Mahi. Pono.
To energize this campaign on the water, consultant Lester launched a strident email demanding support, generously using capitals and bold characters: “ALL WHO WANT AN AGRICULTURAL FUTURE AND FOOD SECURITY FOR MAUI MUST STRONGLY SUPPORT THIS BILL IN ANY POSSIBLE WAY NOW. “
In the email, Lester argued that Mahi Pono’s success depends on “a solid, long-term source of water … what a blessing it will be for all of us.”
He wrote, “This is all the bills that Mahi Pono really needs help with. Without them, the farming business is seriously threatened, as is the future of farming here on Maui. And failure is not an option, ”he added threateningly.
Lester also shot the Sierra Club (similar to a grandmother’s kick), claiming he heard the organization oppose the bills. “Why? Who knows…” He suggested that the nonprofit’s position could “seriously harm Maui’s agricultural future”.
Lester’s email angered a Maui resident so much that he came up with a new nickname for the two-month-old company: “Maybe Pono.”
Community activist Lucienne de Naie was quick to describe the intent of the bill. “It’s a blank check,” said de Naie, conservation president for the Maui chapter of the Sierra Club. “The A&B version was, ‘We need every drop of water we can get. We cannot make anything to interfere with these revocable licenses. Mahi Pono asks the same.
De Naie isn’t the only one troubled by Mahi Pono’s push for unlimited access to water. After seeing the bill, Representative Lynn DeCoite drafted HB1573 (Senator J. Kalani English sponsored Senate Bill 1488) which is roughly the opposite of the Mahi Pono initiative. DeCoite’s bill simply prohibits “any water use license that authorizes the diversion of water from East Maui streams for commercial purposes.”
“I drafted the bill because constituents in my area are very concerned about these water permits,” said DeCoite, whose District 13 covers East Maui, Lana’i and Moloka’i. “They have been waiting for their water for a long time. If they have to wait for their water, then no one gets a permit first. She added, “Look, if you live in the Upcountry and want a water meter, you’ve got to generate a farm plan. Where is [Mahi Pono’s] plan of the farm showing what it will grow and what its water needs will be? If he doesn’t have a farm plan, then get one.
When contacted, Lester said he was not bothered by the reaction to his email. “Everything that is going to happen with a major purchase like this is going to turn some people upside down. I am more than happy to meet groups who have questions.
Update: On Wednesday, Lester wrote to me to clarify his Sierra Club remarks. After first explaining, “I won’t be writing emails at 2am anymore,” Lester went on to say this about the Sierra Club: “They rock … They are allies and defenders. of our islands and I am grateful for all they do and for the people who serve on SC’s Boards of Directors.
[Not to put too fine a point on it, but MauiTime has repeatedly asked Lester and his boss Shan Tsutsui for details on the kinds of crops Mahi Pono intends to plant, for an explanation on the seeming difference in the company’s stated Hawai‘i growing philosophy (food security) and parent company Pomona Farming’s California commodity crop activity (almond trees), for detailed maps of the land purchased, for interviews with company principals, and for details on when an open community meeting might be held. Still no answers.]
[Also, political junkies may be scratching their heads at the strange bedfellows these bills are making. Stalwart A&B supporter J. Kalani English supporting an anti-big agriculture bill? Fierce activist Tiare Lawrence boosting Mahi Pono, which supports legislation introduced by her former political opponent Kyle Yamashita? Oy.]
Update: The above sentence originally read “Mahi Pono’s booster and fierce activist Tiare Lawrence support the same legislation as his former political opponent Kyle Yamashita? This has since been clarified. In response to the previous version of this story, Lawrence wrote: “If you knew anything about me, you would know that I don’t support conservation permits.” When asked if she was therefore saying that she did not support the Mahi Pono-friendly legislation presented by her former political opponent, she repeatedly refused to answer and simply referred to her previous statement.
We’re not the only ones asking questions: DeCoite, one of the few farmers in the state legislature, said she was puzzled by Mahi Pono. “There are a lot of gray areas that Mahi Pono needs to clear up,” she said. “They didn’t answer a lot of questions. They keep saying, “Just trust us”. And I say, ‘Don’t trust anybody.’ Not until you’ve got all the facts.
New South Maui Representative Tina Wildberger also supports Bill DeCoite. “It is not my desire to subvert Mahi Pono’s efforts,” she said in an interview. “But I also don’t want to give the green light to the A&B ‘take it all and leave nothing.” I promised my community that I wouldn’t be an automatic’ yes’ to the establishment and the old ways of doing business. to do business.
However, resolving these diametrically opposed bills will likely involve an age-old method of doing political business: the behind-the-scenes deal. Those familiar with the situation say Mahi Pono wants to know what it will take to keep the opposition at bay. Such a negotiation will likely require a lot more transparency on Mahi Pono’s part to describe exactly what the company has planned for Maui – and its water.
Image 1 courtesy of Sean Lester