Sunday, April 26, 2015

Ahupua`a: Water and Land Lessons From Ancient Hawai`i

Water & Watersheds

By John Shepard

Dr. Kawika Winter closed his eyes for a few moments to center himself. Then he began a melodic, full-throated chant in his native Hawaiian that gave me goosebumps. His voice reverberating through the dense foliage of Kauai's verdant north shore, Winter stood facing an 800-foot waterfall that had come into view. When he was finished chanting, Winter explained that he was giving thanks for the gifts of the forest and announcing our presence before we continued our hike toward one of Hawaii's most pristine environments.

Ground Zero for Endangered Species

In the reaches above the waterfall, so rugged and remote that you need a helicopter to get there, the National Tropical Botanical Garden's Limahuli Garden and Preserve protects an enclave of rare plants and animals that is virtually unrivaled in a land that ranks as ground zero for endangered species in the United States. It's a place where a reviving culture's ancient history has lessons that can enlighten our thinking today.

Hawai`i, with less than one percent of the U.S. land mass, has 30 percent of the country's endangered species. Visitors may be lucky enough to encounter an endangered Nēnē (a distant relative of some Canada geese that 500,000 years ago wandered far off course to eventually become the Hawai`i state bird) or an endangered monk seal (Ilio-holo-i-ka-uaua in Hawaiian, which becomes "dog that runs in rough water" in English).

The endangered Nēnē..

But because Hawai`i is so lush with flora and fauna, the extensive degradation of Hawaii's ecosystems that has given rise to so many endangered species would be news to most. It is news that rarely makes it onto the golf courses and spectacular beaches. It also wouldn't occur to most hikers navigating among exotic looking, but mostly non-native, plants and animals. Equally obscure is the ironic fact that the ancient Hawaiians worked out some extraordinary strategies for living sustainably—even thriving—in a world of palpably finite resources.

The Ahupua`a System

Though there is lively debate over the size of Hawaii's population in 1778, when Captain James Cook arrived in this most remote of the world's archipelagos, the British explorer's estimate was about 400,000 people. That population would have given an average density of about 62 people per square mile—which in practice would have been greater due to an abundance of uninhabitable mountain throughout the islands. In the 1,000 years (again, estimates vary) since the islands were first colonized by Polynesian sea farers in double-hulled canoes, the Hawaiians had mastered a number of land- and water-management strategies that sustained them as if their survival depended upon it, which it did in ways that we would do well to consider today.>

Kauai's Ahupua`a and bio-cultural zones (© Kawika Winter).

The islands were divided into more than 1,800 sections called ahupua`a. Three-quarters of these land units ran from mountain top to the sea. Each ahupua`a was managed communally and overseen by an konohiki, or chief. Interestingly, for those who see value in "thinking like a watershed," in some places ahupua`a were actually defined by watershed boundaries. This was most often the case on Kaua`i, the oldest of the major islands and the place where research suggests that the concept of ahupua`a originated in about 1400 CE.

Kauai's plunging valleys and razor-sharp ridges, and you can't help but notice how watershed boundaries assert their presence. This dramatic landscape has been sculpted by five million years of erosion since Kauai's birth as a dome-shaped volcanic island that looked much like Hawai`i does today. The Hā`ena ahupua`a, which includes the Limahuli Garden and Preserve, was one of those defined by watershed boundary. But even for most of those that weren't, in ancient times the ahupua`a concept sustained communities by providing access to diverse local resources and by instituting ways of maintaining them. Ahupua`a that ranged from mountain peaks to coastal waters extended through as many as five bio-cultural regions that were shaped largely by elevation and climate. These regions offered riches from the sea, areas suited for terraced agriculture, flora and fauna found only in dense forests, and, that essential life resource, fresh water—all without having to leave home.

In the video accompanying this post, Dr. Winter, who holds a PhD in botany and is director of the Limahuli Gardens and Preserve, introduces some key ideas that helped maintain resources within ahupua`a. Stay tuned for more on the subject as CGEE continues to develop learning resources in partnership with the National Tropical Botanical Garden and our other Kaua`i education partners: cultural-historical preservation consulting group Nā Hōkū Welo, and the Ke Kula Ni`ihau O Kekaha Learning Center.

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