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The Climate Crisis and Colonialism Destroyed My Maui Home. Where We Must Go From Here

6 minute read
Ing is the National Director of the Green New Deal Network, former state legislator, and a seventh-generation Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) from Maui, Hawaiʻi

As I watched the flames of the wildfires consume my beloved Maui, it felt as if the very pages from the Book of Revelations were coming alive.

Homes, sacred structures, and institutions flattened. Over 100 lives were lost, with a thousand more unaccounted for. Even the ancient 150-year-old Banyan tree, a guardian of my youth, was marred by the inferno. Each ember seemed to tell a tale, a memory, a piece of a narrative that connected countless generations.

The harrowing wildfires paired with a fierce hurricane wasn't just a tragedy. It felt like Goddess Papahānaumoku—Earth Mother, herself—raging at humanity's hubris. The disturbing silence left by the missing and the mourned souls tells of a disaster that's unnatural, shaped by the human hand—a byproduct of the dangerous dance between climate change and centuries of colonial greed.

While West Maui is no stranger to wildfires, the magnitude of the blaze that tore through Lāhainā is emblematic of a changing climate. Our once-wetland haven has been transformed into a vulnerable tinderbox. Compounding the problem was Hurricane Dora—made fiercer by the warming climate—which propelled the fire further. All of this underscores a painful truth: the first and most severely impacted by the climate crisis are often indigenous, Black, brown, and low-income communities. These groups have contributed the least to climate change, but have suffered the most, and must be prioritized in our transition to a better world.

We can't ignore the scars of history which set the stage for this disaster. Before the hotels, before Hawaii was known as a state or even a territory (and way before its illegal annexation), Lāhainā was the cradle of our civilization. It was the heart and capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom. The waters were so abundant that boats once surrounded the iconic Waiola Church. Kamehameha The Great’s palace stood tall at the town’s center, keeping watch over the shoreline.

Read More: The History Lost in the Maui Wildfires

But at the turn of the 20th century, American sugar barons came to exploit Hawaii's rich resources. They disrupted Lahaina's water supply and brought highly flammable grasses to Hawaii—the very ones that ignited with ferocity last week. Their heirs went on to monopolize land, marginalizing our indigenous population in the process.

Their legacy and extractive way of life endures. Maui’s most dominant corporations today, like Alexander & Baldwin, embody the legacy of those same barons who once sought to profit from our fertile lands. Their ethos of extraction and destruction persists in Maui’s most dominant industries: land speculation and tourism. These industries seek to destroy much of Hawaii’s natural beauty while gatekeeping sections of it for the privileged few.

This timeline of Hawaiian history could be experienced first hand by a walk down Lāhinā’s Front Street just two weeks ago. You could see milestones of our history represented in the street’s restaurants, stores, and historic buildings: from royalty, to whaling, sugar, tourism, and luxury. Today, much of Front Street is burned to the ground. It’s a potent and harrowing reminder of the terminal point of the exploitative trajectory Hawaii has been on for decades.

My greatest fear is that this trajectory of exploitation will continue in the recovery from the Maui wildfires. As whispers of reshaping Lāhainā emerge, with wealthy developers eager to mold it to their vision, our generation’s vision for social and environmental justice grows even firmer. Our recovery from the wildfires can’t just be about combating climate change—it has to be about returning control of our cherished lands to the people who hold them dear.

Read More: Why the History of Hawaii Makes People Fear Lahaina's Future

The future of Maui should be more than just a haven for tourists. Our land should cater to local needs over external desires. Instead of vast monocrops, we should diversify, nurturing fields that feed our own people. Our approach to housing must be rooted in necessity: We need to build homes to actually shelter our people, not to line the pockets of distant investors. With the Department of Hawaiian Homes fully funded for the first time and various land trusts eager to lend a hand, the moment is ripe to provide our many unsheltered Kānaka Maoli with homes that dignify their heritage.

The people of Maui, especially survivors, are taking charge of the recovery process, reshaping the blueprint for our island's restoration. We're picturing a community-driven, just recovery that not only reconstructs Maui but also fosters new leadership among Maui residents—from collaboratively rebuilding a school one day to advocating at the county council the next. As we rise from the ashes, our rebuilding efforts must champion hoʻomana Lāhui—the spirit of collective empowerment.

At the national level, it's past time for President Biden to officially recognize the climate crisis by declaring a climate emergency. This would enable him to halt the destructive fossil fuel production driving these disasters. Furthermore, substantial federal investments on the scale of trillions are required to prevent catastrophes like this one in the future and prioritize the welfare of working families in mitigation and recovery efforts.

Any climate solution would be incomplete without justice at its core. Kānaka Maoli, Native Hawaiians, should be central to the rebuilding and recovery efforts. We should have the authority to manage our lands and resources.

In these heartrending times, it's challenging to see beyond the immediate pain. But there’s a silver lining in our resilience. The wildfires of Maui, while devastating, have also ignited a spark in us. They’ve awakened a renewed commitment to not just rebuild, but to redefine what Hawaii stands for. This is our home, our history, our legacy. And it's our collective responsibility to ensure that Hawaii’s future is carved out of respect, understanding, and love for its past.

Just like the Banyan tree, Lāhainā may have faced devastation, but its roots are deep and resilient. As the Banyan regrows its branches—and recolors itselves with budding leaves—so too, will Lāhainā flourish again.

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