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Hawaii to host World Conservation Congress: Ancient Hawaiian Farmers Offer Lessons in Sustainability

The Hawaii botanist says he hopes that by coming to Limahuli, visitors will learn some valuable lessons from the ancient Hawaiians who worked this land

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Limahuli Garden and Preserve is set in a verdant tropical valley on the north shore of the Hawaiian Island of Kaua`i. Against a backdrop of majestic Makana Mountain, the garden overlooks the Pacific Ocean. Image source: VOA
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Hawaii is hosting the World Conservation Congress. Thousands of government officials, environmental activists, business leaders and other delegates from nearly 200 countries are in Honolulu for 10 days to shape the direction of global conservation and sustainable development. This is the first time the Eco-summit is being held in the U.S. Organizers say one of the reasons the Aloha state was chosen to host the quadrennial conference is because it’s been a model for incorporating indigenous culture into its conservation initiatives.

A shining example of this is Limahuli Garden and Preserve, on the island of Kauai.

Its director, Kawika Winter, points to the evidence of successful, sustainable farming in the verdant tropical valley. “You see all these terraces that are remnants of the ancient agricultural complex that dates back almost a thousand years. So the original inhabitants of this valley built these walls and left them to be able to grow taro on the land.”

Kawika Winter gives a tour of the garden to a group of environmental journalists.
Kawika Winter gives a tour of the garden to a group of environmental journalists. Image source: VOA

Winter notes while most of Hawaii’s food is now imported, once upon a time, valleys like this one nourished the whole community.

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“If you’re to take the time to walk through the jungle over here, you’d find terrace after terrace after terrace, all the way down to the ocean. So this valley was definitely feeding a lot of people in the old days.” In fact, its name – Limahuli – in Hawaiian, means turning hands, and Winter says it might refer to the people who once turned their hands here to work the earth.

Ancient land management system

Limahuli Garden and Preserve is one of four gardens in Hawaii run by the National Tropical Botanical Garden. Winter says it’s also one of the few places in the state where people can learn how to manage resources based on the ancient Hawaiian ahupua`a system. He explains, “An ahupua’a is basically a land section that extends from the top of the mountains, out into the ocean and it’s within the borders of an ahupua’a that Hawaiian communities were developed and managed.”

Artist's depiction of what the area around Limahuli might have looked like many years ago.
Artist’s depiction of what the area around Limahuli might have looked like many years ago. Image source: VOA

Limahuli’s approach gives it a leading role in saving native species. Hawaii is the endangered species capital of the U.S., if not the world. There are more endangered species per square kilometer on these islands than any other place on the planet, and Winter says nearly 40 of them are in 400 protected hectares of Limahuli’s garden and nature preserve.

“We’re working to do ecological restoration to prevent extinction of this precious biodiversity that exists in this valley,” Winter says. “Some of the species are only existing in this valley, and some of them are down to a few individuals in the wild.”

Lessons for sustainability

The Hawaii botanist says he hopes that by coming to Limahuli, visitors will learn some valuable lessons from the ancient Hawaiians who worked this land: whatever you do on the land affects the life and ecosystem of the ocean, and that fresh water is the secret to everything. One of the last pristine waterways left in the Islands runs through the garden.

Limahuli Stream is one of the few pristine waterways left in the Hawaiian Islands.
Limahuli Stream is one of the few pristine waterways left in the Hawaiian Islands. Image source: VOA

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At more than 1,000 workshops and panel discussions, delegates to the World Conservation Congress are focusing on the theme of our planet at the crossroads, with topics ranging from species recovery and eco-tourism to indigenous peoples and megacities and watersheds.

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Kawika Winter believes Limahuli Garden and Preserve can show the world how to care for the planet. “From our perspective, instead of reinventing the wheel, all we need to do is look back to a system that worked in Hawaii for at least a millennium and quite possibly more. And our hope is that we can be a model of sustainability and we can show that the ahupua’a system can offer viable solutions to our contemporary issues regarding sustainability in Hawaii and the globe.” (VOA)

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Hurricane: Development of Beachfront areas Not Safe in US

US Beach Building Persists Despite Nature’s Grip

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FILE - Homes severely damaged by Superstorm Sandy are seen along the beach in Mantoloking, N.J., April 25, 2013. Mantoloking and Ocean City, N.J., planned to go to court to seize control of narrow strips of beachfront land from property owners blocking a desperately needed protective dune system along New Jersey's 127-mile coast. (VOA)

When a hurricane comes ashore, few images are more iconic than a million-dollar beach house collapsing into the sea.

Undermined by the ferocity of water, shifting sands and sometimes bad construction, waterfront development takes a beating each time a powerful storm barrels into the Eastern Seaboard.

So why do people keep building on the beach?

“Development of beachfront areas is controversial,” writes Florence Duarte of Georgia State University in the report Responsible Beachfront Development. “On one side, a growing human population demands the use of such areas for recreation and work. On the other, environmentalists and biologists hope to preserve these habitats.”

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Sandbags surround homes on North Topsail Beach, N.C., Sept. 12, 2018, as Hurricane Florence threatens the coast. (VOA)

A balance

The balance between the human desire to work and play on the water — and developing the waterfront responsibly — often is tested during hurricane and storm season. Despite increased intensity and frequency of storms, rising sea levels and other weather catastrophes, the beach remains the most desirable of destinations: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that more than half the U.S. population lives along a coast, and 180 million people visit each year.

Housing and rental prices along East Coast beaches in Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York’s Long Island and Cape Cod in Massachusetts exceed the national average because of the views, fresh air and access to water activities. The point of sitting for hours in traffic on a hot, summer Friday is to get away from developed, urban, asphalt centers for the weekend.

Development tapped out

But many resort destinations are reaching maximum development.

In Ocean City, Maryland, a 14-kilometer-long barrier island that is home to about 7,000 permanent residents in the off-season, swells to more than 300,000 vacationers in the summer and on holidays.

“The development has pretty much tapped out,” said J.D. Wells, a Realtor and lifelong Ocean City resident. “The oceanfront is completely developed. Any new construction being done is replacing a tear-down that was already there.”

Properties that sit along the waterfront or have a view of the ocean can fetch more than double equivalent properties inland, Wells said.

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FILE – People walk along a beach near damaged beachfront homes, March 11, 2018, in Marshfield, Mass. The Northeast is bracing for its third nor’easter in fewer than two weeks. (VOA)

Views and taxes

Towns and cities collect substantial tax revenue from those waterfront and water-view properties, sometimes charging homeowners tens of thousands of dollars more in taxes for the luxury of owning beachfront property. In many areas that have seasonal ebbs and flows, tax revenue from those properties can fill municipal coffers that benefit permanent residents, many of whom cannot afford the waterfront prices of seasonal residents.

“Over the past few decades, society’s wealth, attitude and desires have shifted and floodplains are now being developed in more upscale ways,” said Andy Coburn, associate director for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina.

“We can’t overlook the demand for coastal land, no matter how vulnerable or risky,” he added.

To protect beachfront properties, some towns have pushed back on nature by replacing sand stolen by storms. And while beach replenishment is expensive — Virginia Beach, Virginia, set aside $10 million for six years of sand replenishment — it is not permanent. The ocean is supposed to pound away at the beach, dragging it back out to sea.

In New Jersey, the state earmarked $1.2 billion for projects that reduce hurricane and storm damage, manage coastal storm risk and replenish the beaches that generate nearly half of the state’s $45.4 billion in annual tourism dollars.

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FILE – The remnants of a home leveled by Hurricane Matthew sit along the beachfront as Chief of Police George Brothers talks on the radio after Hurricane Matthew hit Edisto Beach, S.C., Oct. 8, 2016. (VOA)

Building codes for new construction require windows and doors that can withstand high winds and hold back flooding. Wells explained that seawalls and sand dunes are erected as barriers. But nature is mighty.

Powerful even on a normal day, the Atlantic Ocean, when combined with the energy of an extreme storm, can cut through solid land. Residents of Ocean City, Maryland, wandered out after a storm in 1933 to find that a 15-meter wide, 2.5-meter-deep inlet had been sliced into the south end of their barrier island, opening a convenient channel for fishing and pleasure craft between the ocean and the bay.

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Likewise, the ocean created an inlet in Chatham, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, while snatching vintage, brown-shingled cottages into the sea in 2009, according to the Boston Globe newspaper.

“A compromise needs to be found that is responsible to both demands. Rational, sustainable usage of these areas is possible if people are willing to spend time and money in planning,” Duarte wrote.

“Bounded by water, coastal and waterfront communities are challenged to make the best use of limited land while protecting critical natural resources from the potentially damaging effects of growth,” says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in its SmartGrowth report. “These communities must consider a common set of overarching issues when managing growth and development.” (VOA)