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Wa`a Moloka`i: Island-Sized Food Security Through a 21st Century Living Canoe

Original Atrwork by Anthony Dohanos of Pahoa, Hawaii

Food security and canoes go hand-in-hand in Hawaii. When the Hawaiian Islands were first settled around 750 A.D., and for many generations after that, Polynesian voyagers stocked their massive double-hauled canoes with specific crops necessary for colonization. While a wide variety of plants and trees were already growing when early settlers arrived, the food plants that we have come to know as “traditional” were not. Vine cuttings, root stock, crowns, sprouts, slips, shoots and seeds all had to be carefully prepared, packed and loaded into canoes for long journeys across the unforgiving Pacific Ocean if settlers were to be able to survive on the new land.

For this reason, these basic staples are known today as “canoe plants”. They include such plants as taro, sweet potato, yam, banana, sugar cane, breadfruit and coconut. Upon arrival, using only primitive tools, Hawaiian gardeners planted these staples among the islands, using a highly advanced type of horticulture that included irrigation from streams, terracing, mulching and use of green manure. As a result, over time, the `aina (land) became momona (abundant) with all the food (and medicinal plants) the people needed for survival. This was particularly true for the Island of Molokai, which was so plentiful with food it became known as the “breadbasket” of Hawaii, providing a surplus that was shared with the other islands.

Unfortunately, after years of abuse of the land and removal of existing vegetation, much of Molokai’s momona has been lost. Left behind are barren slopes that slowly erode and blanket another source of food, the reefs below. On any given day, when driving along the south shore reef, this can be seen as a 10-mile expanse of milk chocolate waters.

On the upside, the majority of people living on the island still get much of their protein sources through subsistence – fishing and hunting deer, wild boar and goats. However, like the other Hawaiian Islands, Molokai is still relying significantly on imports from the U.S. mainland and elsewhere, brought in twice a week on barges. If the barges stop coming one day, there is only an estimated seven days’ worth of food on grocery store shelves for all of Hawaii. This fact alone makes the need for food security a top priority.

Fortunately, Hawaiians are a tough, resourceful and amazingly determined people — particularly those who live on Molokai. There, a group of key community leaders have banded together with the intention to heal the land and work toward food security. Because of Molokai’s small size and rural isolation, the Island has remained relatively pristine from exposure to many of the plant diseases and pests that plague the other islands. This makes Molokai an ideal place to begin re-stocking the land as a central food source.

With the aid of permaculture training, melded together with traditional Hawaiian gardening, the people of Molokai are determined to reclaim the title of `aina momoma by becoming a living arc or canoe, that will preserve its indigenous culture and serve as a polycultured plant source for all of Hawaii and the Pacific. Molokai will grow all varieties of canoe plants together with other tropical foods, such as papaya, mango, avocado, guava, citrus, etc.… It will be this mix of traditional and non-traditional plants and trees that will make it most appropriate and resilient for modern and future food security.

In the Fall of 2010, the Permaculture Research Institute USA sponsored 20 local students for 5 weeks of training in 4 key Permaculture courses (PDC, Practicum, Teacher Training and Earthworks). Local organizations Sust`ainable Molokai and the Alu Like Ho`ala Hou Program hosted the courses. The goal of the extensive training was to prepare the group to begin replanting the island. Recently, we have been invited back to help them set up nursery stocks that will be used in these island-wide replanting efforts. As a result, we are offering a 4-day training, starting April 11, on “Plant Propagation and Seed Saving”.

This course will cover key plant propagation techniques, including from seed, layering, grafting, cuttings; seed collection, saving and starting; nursery management; and making soil mixes. During our island-wide gathering efforts, we will also be documenting details of our sources to begin creation of an up-coming local plant database. After the course, students will lead community collection and propagation efforts around the island. As they begin to create sufficient nursery stock, re-vegetative work will begin, including restoration of model ahupua`a systems (known as ohana systems in permaculture).

If you are interested in taking this course and helping in this historical effort, please visit PRI USA course listings for more information. PRI USA is also offering a 2-day Swale Practicum following the Plant Propagation Course.


  1. The importance of this goes far beyond food security and the effects on the local environment, important as the last two are.

    By consuming to excess junk food imported from the mainland, and no longer expending energy in the way of their forefathers, far too many native Hawaiians, Filipinos and Japanese suffer unnecessarily from type 2 diabetes and all its complications. The residents of Molokai are, sadly, no exception to this.


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