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Maui Weekly, © March 21, 2007

Malama ‛Aina

The Native Hawaiian Plant Society works to conserve and restore our threatened ecosystems

By Crissa Hiranaga


Hawaiian culture roots itself in a profound love and respect for the land. Ancient Polynesians that first came to the islands learned that if they cared for the land, it would, in return, care for them. They created the concept of malama ‛aina (to nurture the land) to ensure that the unique resources endemic to Hawaii would sustain them and future generations of Hawaiians to come. Today, with the onslaught of ever-growing modern threats, the land so treasured by our ancestors faces grave danger. Malama ‛aina, though still present in our increasingly urban conscience, is fast-becoming a muted whisper from the past.

Culprits vary, but, ultimately, the rapid deterioration of our precious ecosystems is attributed to the most common offender—humans. Development, grazing, invasive species, and fire are just some of the contributors to the impending disappearance of our extraordinary landscape. If we don't act now, we may lose forever some of the species unique to Hawaii.

The Native Hawaiian Plant Society recognizes the importance of protecting our vulnerable ecosystems and has been actively working toward conservation, restoration, and education since the 70s. Lee Altenberg, chairman of the Native Hawaiian Plant Society, explains, “The first Polynesians discovered the values of each plant, and they used that in their culture and to survive. Since the arrival of Europeans, that system has been displaced by industrial technology—but that is without a connection to the plants or to the culture.”

Not only is the loss of our land a cultural concern, but it is one of importance to the natural world as well. The isolation of our islands has manifested species that exist nowhere else on Earth. According to board member Philip Thomas, “Approximately 90 percent of native plants in Hawaii are endemic—meaning they occur nowhere else in the world.” Altenberg elaborates, “Hawaii is incredibly famous for its uniqueness in evolution. You may see a plant all the time and not think much about it, but it's really one of the world's treasures in terms of the process of life happening. However, there are pathetically little resources going to preserving them.”

Consider our native wiliwili trees, for example.  Not only are these exceptional trees threatened by the invasive erythrina gall wasp (the same tiny pest that annihilated the Indian coral trees that once lined the Mokulele highway), but they are also jeopardized by a more controllable threat: development. Currently there is a bill before the Maui County Council to rezone the Wailea 670 property to allow the development of another golf course. The land in question hosts a dryland wiliwili forest as well as the ‛awikiwiki (an endemic species, which is a candidate for the endangered species list). However, no regulations exist that mandate the preservation of these uniquely Hawaiian species. 

The Native Hawaiian Plant Society works to fill in the cracks by educating the public on offenses such as the aforementioned. “There are a lot of organizations that have a particular piece of turf,” says Altenberg. “The Native Hawaiian Plant Society isn't attached to any particular piece of land or property, so anyone in the community can get involved and learn about native plants. We try to be an organization that initiates new ideas and piques people's interest.”

The society has pioneered such projects as building fenced exclosures around endangered species, such as our Hawaiian state flower: Hibiscus brackenridgei. These exclosures protect the rarest of plants from grazing animals and other hazards. Another ongoing project is the restoration of Kanaha Pond. Every Thursday morning, members get together to maintain this special habitat.

The society offers a gateway for the public to connect with our indigenous plant life.  Join them on April 21st for an Earth Day celebration at the Maui Nui Botanical Gardens on Kanaloa Avenue, adjacent to the War Memorial Stadium. Festivities will include a plant sale, silent auction, lei making, tapa making, and music from Hawaiian slack-key masters.

The Native Hawaiian Plant Society urges us to address the importance of conserving and restoring our endemic species, to breathe life back into the philosophy of our Hawaiian ancestors, to malama ‛aina. “One of the most powerful experiences I can have is with a being that's on the edge of existence,” says Altenberg. “When you can make a difference in some small way of giving this to another generation, when you bring yourself into the presence of something like that—it's a profound experience.”

For more information on how you can become involved, visit www.nativehawaiianplantsociety.org. For further information on the Kanaha Pond project, contact Lorna Hazen at 572-6338.