The colonial and neo-colonial legacies of the Maui fires
An interview with Naima Temaile Fifita
Naima Temaile Fifita is a recent graduate of the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawai’i (Mānoa), where she studied environmental law with a focus on Pacific climate displacement and served as President of the Pacific Islander Legal Association.
Interview by Samira Homerang Saunders.
Samira: Can you give us a brief introduction to yourself? Where are you from and what does your work focus on?
Naima: Aloha, Talofa, hi, I’m Naima Temaile Fifita and I am speaking from Honolulu, Hawaii, where I’ve lived for the past 15 years now. My interests lie in environmental law, specifically as it relates to the Pacific region, its island nations and the people. I recently graduated from the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawaii in Manoa. I studied environmental law with a focus on climate migration policy for Pacific people but also indigenous rights and international law. My reasons for attending law school were really a direct result of my family’s experience as Tuvaluan and Marshallese citizens, many of whom have been immediately impacted by climate change and rising sea levels and have migrated from their homelands and are unable to return for fear of impending climate threats and loss of both agricultural and inhabitable land.
My work in the legal field has mostly had to do with researching and documenting how different Pacific Island communities use customary knowledge and customary law to build or maintain resilience in response to climate change impacts like climate induced migration and looking at what obstacles stand in their way in terms of the legal framework protecting their rights.
S: Amazing, thank you. Ok, to get right into it, Hawaii is a Pacific Island and the home to the Kanaka Maoli people, but it is also the 50th state of the US. To my understanding, in 1893, Hawaii had an indigenous monarch, Queen Lili’uokalani, who was forcefully overthrown in a coup that was partly orchestrated by the US government in order to annex the islands into their territory. Could you provide a little more background on that coup and how it has had ripple effects for the native population?
N: Yes it was 1891 that Queen Lili’uokalani came to throne and at that time the politics surrounding who would hold the true power was coming to a head in Hawaii and locally, citizens and residents and native Hawaiians and foreigners had a ton of conflicting interests. Globally the great powers of the world were racing in to claim these new territories in competitive land grab. From a US perspective, this became known as manifest destiny. About two months into the queen’s reign, a wave of panic spread across Hawaii’s plantations for the sugar growers who were in Hawaii at the time were primarily white or Haole plantation owners. Ensuring that their business would survive meant that Hawaii would become part of the United States.
You mentioned the coup that took place but it was a group of white sugar growers and business men that formed a secret society to ensure that Hawaii would be annexed for the US. Annexation was not something that Queen Lili’uokalani was particularly focused on or striving towards as you can imagine, and she was actually trying to override the Bayonet Constitution of 1887 which really undermined the authority of King Kalākaua and stripped native Hawaiians of their land rights, giving voting rights to foreign land owners.
So she was adamantly against that and she drafted a new constitution and was waiting for a time to introduce it to her people, but then I think there were two individuals who were a part of her cabinet who betrayed her and they were Americans. They betrayed her by going to the annexationists with news of her plans and then when they received news of the Queen’s plans they regrouped to form what they called The Committee of Safety and this was the group that plotted to overthrow the Hawaiian monarchy. The Committee wrote papers to establish the new government and were going to name Judge Sanford Dole, who was a missionary’s son, as their president (and by the way this is the same Dole that produces a lot of our fruits and vegetables and our family never ever buys anything that has been produced by Dole for this same reason.) A couple of days later the US marines held the queen at gunpoint at Iolani Palace, which is just five minutes away, and forced her to surrender to the US and not to the provisional government that was established at the time in Honolulu, but to the US.
Not too long after this happened, there was an attempt to restore the queen to power but this was unsuccessful and ultimately the queen was given a five year sentence and was fined about $5000 dollars. Neither of these penalties were imposed but she was placed under house arrest in a small room on the second floor of her palace, which you can actually visit today. It’s an incredibly heavy experience seeing and learning about what she was subjected to in her own kingdom, but also quite beautiful because you learn about how she spent those lonely years writing hundreds of songs and poems and engaging in the arts as a way to express her love for her people, who still very much saw her as their queen.
S: I think in many ways, there are people who aren’t really aware of this complex history, but this conversation surrounding sovereignty is so directly linked to environmental justice. In recent years, and especially with the connection that the digital realm brings, we’ve seen a lot of extended conversation and activism surrounding the protection of Mauna Kea, which shed light on the fight to protect indigenous and sacred land, as well as raise a flag to this pattern of land grabbing. In tandem with this, and I think especially since the pandemic, I’ve seen a lot of conversation circulating social media, in which people are telling tourists, specifically from the US, to stop vacationing in Hawaii. Why is the attitude towards Hawaii as a holiday destination something that actively harms the population?
N: That’s a really good question. I think one of the main issues here has to do with environmental self-determination, or lack thereof. Without this, everything that nourishes and sustains native Hawaiians is ruined and commodified. And I’m going to say this: Native Hawaiian land and culture is fetishized and used to sell “escape” to millions of tourists each year. The island’s resources that could and should be used to benefit and serve the indigenous people and local residents, is instead being copiously poured into these tourist attractions and development, that does nothing to bring health and wellbeing to Kanaka, who are disproportionately represented among houseless, incarcerated and chronically ill populations in their ancestral lands – that is the moral crux here.
We’ve seen how tourism has completely destroyed precious and sacred ecosystems here. In the case of Mauna Kea, that is a situation where Mauna Kea is considered a spiritual ancestor, part of the genealogy of native Hawaiians. It’s considered the centre of Hawaii island, it’s a shrine for worship, it’s a home to the Gods. It’s also considered ceded lands, and part of a Ceded Lands Trust that the state of Hawaii must protect and preserve for future generations. So the government has this Kuliana, or this responsibility as a trustee, to protect land like Mauna Kea.
Despite generations of native Hawaiians expressing frustration about the threats to Mauna Kea, the state and the University of Hawaii have persistently neglected their legal responsibilities to adequately manage this Mauna. Instead, they’ve prioritised development, which has happened at the expense of properly caring for the mountain’s natural and cultural resources, and so again I think it circles back to environmental self-determination. When something happens against the wishes of the native population and then it’s also to their detriment, that’s where the issue lies. The argument is that for Mauna Kea specifically, the state, the government and the university of Hawaii have not fulfilled their obligations as stewards and trustees of this special place and this has even been publicly admitted.
So the building of this latest, thirty meter diameter telescope (TMT), now the community is like, no, no more. You’ve had your chance and Mauna Kea is being decimated, there is human faeces running through these pure aquifers, so you are not building another one. There’s been talk about introducing or imposing a green fee that would rehabilitate some of the natural areas that have been damaged by tourism and traffic. It’s a conversation that definitely will become more prominent as we see more environmental degradation, and more money and resources funnelled into the tourism industry to the detriment of the local and indigenous population.
S: And so this call to stop vacationing in Hawaii is kind of a response to what is feeding this bigger systemic pattern of diverting resources away – would that be correct to say?
N: Yes, but I think it’s more so the need and the call for balance. We substantially rely on the money that comes from the tourism industry. That provides a significant financial resource for all islands, so to do without it would be pretty severe. I think in the context of the Maui fires, the call to stop vacationing and to not come to Maui when people are grieving was out of necessity, because now is not the time to play host and entertain, now is the time for us to turn inward. There was so little help from external government resources, and the tourists don’t understand – there were tourists surfing the day after the fires in Maui, and the local community was like, okay we know that their headspace is not where ours is, and we don’t need to see that right now, we’re grieving.
S: That brings us to Maui and the recent devastation of the fires in Lahaina. Lahaina has a population of about 13,000 and was once the capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii. It has now been effectively razed to the ground. According to Reuters, it is the deadliest ‘wildfire’ in the US in over a century. Over 2500 acres burned, many dead and many still missing. Amidst this is conversation emerging which acknowledges that these days, natural disasters aren’t entirely natural – and by this I mean they are often catalysed by decades of capitalist driven environmental degradation through extraction and through development and infrastructure building for tourism. I know there is so much to unpack here but maybe we can begin with how the scale of this disaster was not in fact a “freak accident” but the result of a specific set of circumstances.
N: Yes. I want to bring to mind the article in the Guardian by Naomi Klein and Kapua’ala Sproat, because it calls out the fact that this isn’t just a random and singular event, but part of a strategic effort that continues to strip the local and native residents of what is considered the most vital natural resource – water. It’s an effort to further business interests. Water in Hawaii, and Maui specifically, is an incredibly contentious issue and has been for years now. Maui has seen its fair share of water diversion due to tourism, real estate development, and agricultural industries.
It has meant that native Hawaiians, who have a constitutional right to practise their traditions, such as subsistence farming, cannot do so. This is disaster capitalism. In Maui’s case, the article argues, this is “plantation disaster capitalism” where the ancestral lands are sought after by real estate agents, who contact those who just lost everything to the fire, and trying to entice them by saying “if you sell to us now, you won’t have to wait so long for compensation.” It’s pretty sickening to know that these tactics are still being deployed, but also really reassuring and refreshing to see how the Maui community, and the native Hawaiian community in particular, are not staying quiet about this. One of the big headlines that we saw soon after the fires was the lack of response or slow response from the government to provide aid, and that really exposed the tension in the relationship between the US and the native Hawaiian community: they occupy, yet they don’t provide in the most dire of times, and in response the entire Hawaii community just did what they knew they could do and what they had to do. They came together to ensure to the best of their ability that everyone who survived was taken care of. They used this disaster to shine a light on the water issues that have plagued Maui for years and the reasons why it was so vulnerable to bushfires in the first place. The fact that Maui can carry a fire like that, when it was considered one of the wettest places across the islands, is something to pay attention to. I think there is a lot of speculation, and I use that word believing that the speculation is coming from a valid and credible place and is based on legal precedent, but there has been speculation about how these fires started and the timing at which they started, I think the articles says these fires started one day after the native Hawaiian community was able to submit their water permits so that they could receive water to grow taro at their homes, or simply bathe their children. The water has been diverted for years. I just earnestly hope the community’s needs and demands are heard and addressed properly.
S: It’s very insidious and is really, as you said, a precious opportunity to shed light and engage further in conversation about these systemic patterns that are so deeply harmful. Can you say a little more about governmental response in the aftermath of the fires?
N: The Maui community and survivors believe that the response from both the state and federal government was slow and apparently that was due to staffing or funding shortages but the community realised they had to do it on their own. So when they realised they couldn’t transport food, clothing and supplies by road, people got on their boats and delivered the supplies that way. Some people are still unable to find housing, daily necessities or medical aid and I think the national guard and the coast guard came with one ship, but their plane broke down so they were unable to get to these people, it was just so uncoordinated and unorganised. The community just found that, okay this is kind of what we expected from the US, and this just kind of exacerbates the tension there. You get a different account from the government, they think they’ve been present and fast and robust in their efforts, and the community is like, actually no. All these interesting dynamics that disasters like these shine a light on. Like, Mark Zuckerberg has his massive development on Kawaii, and has privatised such a massive area of land – if there should be a fire there I wonder what the response would be from the community and from his “kingdom.”
But I really do want to emphasise the amount of support that came from all of the islands for Maui and the Maui community itself – it’s nothing but its own resilience and grit. They can handle this, but they are definitely using this as a time to point the finger at where the wrongs are – if not now then when?
S: Something i’ve been thinking about, in relation to the climate crisis and environmental degradation, is this idea that onus is on the individual, and that we can each make a difference – which is not untrue – but I definitely think, like you said, now is the time to point the finger and identify the underlying causes. In general, these large corporations and governments are pushing the responsibility onto us, but they are the ones with the capital and the ones who are the largest emitters of greenhouse gases and waste. It’s amazing to see the support and the resilience from the community in Maui and what’s coming from the other islands, but equally important is not to let this narrative from the outside, that lauds their resilience, to overshadow that this happened as a result of that specific set of circumstances we talked about. A clear line can be drawn from settler colonialism to the tactics of disaster capitalism.
N: Yeah and it’s about two things right – it’s about honesty and justice. It’s not pointing the finger for the sake of it, but so that constructive change can be built on that.
S: Is there anything else you would like to highlight before we wrap up?
N: I just want to emphasise that there is so much hope and optimism despite all these environmental challenges and colonial struggles that people are still experiencing here. And one thing that is never lost on the people who live here, regardless of whether you’re native Hawaiian or not, Aloha is not a cheapened idea or concept, it still is at the core of all these negotiations and all these challenged and struggles, and that is what I love most about this place and what gives me hope as well. If they can respond to this situation with love, and still a willingness to reconcile differences and find justice and find unity, that sets such a beautiful example for the entire world really, to respond with Aloha, and again, I’m not native Hawaiian but I am an ally
S: Thank you so much for this conversation Naima!