Abundant Land: The Rich Legacy Of Traditional Hawaiian Land Management

The fragile beauty of Molokai, Hawaii’s “Friendly Isle,” nestled between Oahu and Maui, belies an environmental stewardship its native Hawaiian residents have fought hard to preserve. More than a century of outsider development by sugar cane and pineapple industries, cattle ranchers, and agrochemical companies developing and expanding genetically engineered seed crops has caused ecological damage and contamination to the island.

Abundant Land, Soil, Seeds and Sovereignty, a documentary by Bay Area based director Natasha Florentino, follows a group of Molokai resident educators and activists in efforts to promote permaculture, an alternative to chemically dependent environmental practices to their island home. Once known as the “Isle of Plenty” for its abundant harvest of taro, sweet potatoes, and fish, traditional food mainstays of the island, Molokai has been environmentally exploited for too long, and for much of that time residents and even state and local officials, could not do enough to impose sufficient change. The efforts, complicated and beset with obstacles from powerful, big business interests and money, hit hard at Molokai residents in core ways. The exploitation, with resulting damage to the land and potentially to the people of Molokai, is also happening on other islands, and more broadly affects the healthy sustainability across all of Hawaii.

While on a first trip to Hawaii filmmaker Florentino was shocked at the commercial development on Oahu and felt it was an assault against the environment and culture. She wondered how the native Hawaiian community was impacted and how they felt. After learning that Molokai had the highest percentage of native Hawaiians who had also successfully maintained their cultural heritage, she wanted to learn more about the native community there.

Once in Molokai, Florentino became aware of the agrochemical presence and environmental problems the island and its residents were dealing with. Many Molokai residents opposed their island being used for chemical seed testing and were angered by the health risks these industries might have introduced. From that awareness, Florentino knew she had to follow the story and make a film. “I wanted to capture the response of community members who were working so diligently to protect the island,” she says. She met with residents to hear their stories and followed the path to change the activists had begun through insight and determination.

With dedication and educational guidance to learn eco-friendly best practices to promote permaculture, an ecological design system that aligns with the native Hawaiian land management practice known as ahupua’a, traditional agricultural farming methods of land division and use, the Molokai residents began to gain the knowledge and skills they needed to reverse environmental damage.

Abundant Land highlights the personal and shared stories of Molokai residents, including:

Mercy Ritte, a self-described stay-at-home mom, is a vocal, action-minded advocate who began to see a problem after her young son developed the worst cough she had ever heard. Born and reared on Molokai, Mercy has seen the damaging effects of the chemical industrial farming that Monsanto, the island’s largest employer, conducts on the land, and she worries about her family’s health. Living near Monsanto’s fields, Mercy became increasingly concerned about pesticide residue carried by strong island winds that spread contaminants. Along with other activists, she has been outspoken to demand tighter state controls to regulate the industry.

Malia Akutagawa, a Molokai born resident, educator, lawyer, and co-founder of Sustainable Molokai, shares the deep connection to Molokai land. “In the Hawaiian world view, āina is like a family member. We have genealogical ties to the land. Our purpose is to serve the āina.” Malia adds, “When you care for the earth, you care for the people.”

Walter Ritte is a native Hawaiian educator and rights activist who is passionate about the health and sustainability of the island home he cherishes. Recognizing the island’s limited resources, he works to counter damage from the agrochemical industry on Molokai, taking the fight beyond the island. “Agricultural interests are exempt from any community interference whatsoever. We have no process to remedy that,” he says, though he is determined to ensure change. Walter is a board member of Hawai‘i SEED, a nonprofit organization that works to educate the public about proven and potential dangers of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and nurture healthy and sustainable food and farming. Among his many community actions, Walter co-leads efforts to create Hawaii state legislation requiring labeling of GMOs.

Geoff Lawton, a highly respected permaculture designer and instructor, was invited to teach a permaculture segment of a course for Molokai residents to implement a system to heal the island environment. Geoff introduced permaculture, a design system based on ecological principles, to the residents and explained, “design systems that link back to common sense, traditional knowledge, and all kinds of things we need to heal and repair the land” are “how we can bring culture back to vitality.” Geoff and his team worked with island residents to instruct them on permaculture techniques to rehydrate the arid end of Molokai. His aim was to extend the humid end to slow down the arid land erosion, build soil, and reforest the dry part of the island.

Making Abundant Land has deeply affected director Florentino in a way she defines as being “a transformational process for me as a director and as a person.” Not only did the Molokai community help in that transformation by teaching her “the importance of being connected to the earth,” but also, as Florentino shared, “that building a strong community and protecting those resources we cannot replenish are critical objectives.”

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