Cover Story

Cover Story
Moloka‘i residents protest at Kaunakakai Harbor.
Image: walter ritte

A cruise ship controversy gets Islanders together to plan for a sustainable future-- in a community-based process that could help guide the rest of us.

Cover Story / Late last year, a two-year-old organization on Molokai called ‘Aha Kiole o Molokai put a simple yes-or-no question to the island households: Do you support a “cruise tour industry” setting up on Molokai?

Surveys were placed in island mailboxes and made available at the island’s one-stop social-services center, Kulana Oiwi. ‘Aha Kiole reps conducted face-to-face polling at card tables set up in Kaunakakai and Kualapuu. To be counted, each “yes” or “no” required a name. The results: About 40 of the 440 respondents (about 6 percent of the people, or 16 percent of households) said “yes” to the question while the rest said “no,” according to Kamalu Poepoe, ‘Aha Kiole’s poo alakai, or vice chair. Poepoe stressed that several of the respondents who said “no” indicated that if the cruise ship-based tourism were managed, then they might be more inclined to support it.

Walter Ritte, longtime leader of Molokai’s defenders, explained why the survey result was so lopsided: “You have a lot of people in Kaunakakai who support the cruise ships coming in,” he said in a phone interview. But a majority of people on the island, they don’t give a rip. They don’t have a van, they don’t have tours, they don’t have a store–they just think, ‘the less guys on the road, the better.’ ”

Gathering consensus

An old Molokai term, “‘Aha Kiole” roughly translates as a people’s council or a council of experts, according to the late, esteemed kumu hula John Kaimikaua, founder of Molokai’s annual Ka Hula Piko festival. In a 2006 video, he explained that ‘aha means a gathering, as in the many braided ‘olona strands, the aho, that woven together make the strongest cording. While he talked, his hands were busy braiding strands into a rope.

Kiole, the kumu went on, is derived from ‘iole, referring to the hatchling schools of fish that used to cloud the big reef on Molokai’s south shore–a metaphor for abundance and human health. These ‘aha kiole, these people’s councils, one for each moku or district, were composed of experts who, Kaimikaua said, “wove their expertise together to form an ‘aha, like a strong cord.” They made rules that enabled their island to be pono, to balance itself and flourish abundantly, “with multitudes of people without starvation,” the kumu said–at a time when Molokai was known as ‘aina momona, or fat land, the land of fat fish and kukui nut relish.

The current ‘Aha Kiole o Moloka’i was seeded four years ago, when an impressive cabal of federal resource managers, Hawaiian cultural leaders and practitioners and politicians got together to launch a statewide initiative aimed at adopting similar land-to-sea resource management ideas into the workings of the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR).

The cruise-ship survey was the third poll done by ‘Aha Kiole recently. The first showed a large majority of Islanders opposed to the idea of building wind turbines on the island to help power Oahu. The second quantified the impacts on the island’s nearshore fisheries caused by the swarms of escort boats that accompany the many big-time, cross-channel, Molokai-to-Oahu ocean races held every year.

Cruise ship protests

Aha Kiole conducted the cruise-ship survey at about the same time as a headline-making series of confrontations between Island protesters and a Seattle-based, boutique-style cruise ship line called American Safari Cruises (ASC). The first two visits by the 145-foot yacht Explorer, with its 30-odd passengers, were met at the Kaunakakai pier not with lei, but with signs that said things like “GO HOME!” and “Molokai Not For $ALE.”

The protests culminated on Nov. 26, when 13 Islanders on boats and surfboards led by Ritte blocked the docking of the Explorer at the pier. Early the next day, the boat managed to land, but then a van tour arranged for Explorer passengers had to give up on its remote Halawa Valley destination when a downed tree and stalled car blocked the narrow road. ASC cancelled the rest of its scheduled December visits. (All of this should sound vaguely familiar: In 2007, Molokai protesters forced Holland America Lines and Norwegian Cruise Lines to skip the island altogether.)

Editorial bluster

Meanwhile, an anguished guest editorial by high-tech maven Jay Fidell, headlined “Molokai cannot be allowed to isolate itself from Oahu,” appeared in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Dec. 6, 2011. “The blockade at Kaunakakai is an outrage and should not be tolerated,” Fidell, an advocate for HECO’s “Big Wind” project, began. He also bemoaned the island’s opposition to wind farms and told the island’s “dissenters” that “it’s just as much our island as it is your island.” He concluded, “What happened on Molokai has got to stop.”

Six days after Fidell’s tirade, the Star-Advertiser’s own editorialists declared, “Protesters can’t close Molokai with blockades”–a bit of bluster that ignores the facts on the grounds: 1) Protestors did blockade Molokai’s port and 2) For nearly 40 years by hook or by crook, the island’s legion of defenders have kept Molokai more or less off limits to wave after wave of big-time investors proclaiming their right to exploit the island however they saw fit…within the law, of course.

The bitter irony of all this is that the protesters’ record of success has preserved the Molokai that ASC wants so badly to unlock for its discerning guests, who pay between $6,000 and $8,000 each for a weeklong cruise that visits the Big Island, Maui, Lanai and Molokai, which is billed as “the last Hawaiian island.” As American Safari’s CEO and owner Dan Blanchard told me, “We wouldn’t be going there if it wasn’t what it is today.”

A truce

Pressed to work together by DLNR officials who acted as mediators, Blanchard and Ritte negotiated a deal. It called for a month-long time out so Molokai could figure out how it wants to handle future cruise-ship visits–and, in the process, the whole touristic shibai. Blanchard agreed to a cooling-off period until Jan.21, when the Explorer would return to Kaunakakai.

“He’s been really good about communicating his concerns,” Blanchard said of Ritte in a phone interview. “I think [Ritte] sees this period as an opportunity to build a process on the island that is badly needed. We’ll see if it goes or not.” Blanchard’s skepticism is warranted, he says, because the ‘Aha Kiole process is supported by “those who opposed the boat quite strongly, but whether there are people in the process who support it, I question.”

I ask Blanchard if he understands Molokai’s difficulty, not having its own local government and all. “I sure do!” he answers. “It’s an amazing thing that in this day and age, there’s not more local governance [in Hawaii]. Where I come from, a place Molokai’s size would have its own mayor and all that.”

A process

The upshot of the deal-making between the state, Blanchard and Ritte is that Islanders now have a concrete challenge: to come up with some kind of community-based management plan that accurately reflects the island’s patchwork of needs and desires to protect itself and its way of life, as well as accommodate Blanchard’s rights as an American businessman seeking to use a state-funded harbor facility, as per the Commerce Clause of the US Constitution.

On the Wednesday before Christmas, about 100 people showed up at Mitchell Pauole Community Center in Kaunakakai to start the down-and-dirty work of hashing out some kind of legitimate document that the state, and maybe the Maui County Council, Molokai’s law-making and permit-approving overseer, will buy.

After the opening chant, ‘Aha Kiole poo alakai Kamalu Poepoe laid out the process for the next several weeks. ‘Aha Kiole had set up four community meetings, one in each of the moku: Kaluakoi, Palaau, Kawela, and Manae. Each moku had been assigned a designated ‘Aha Kiole representative to host its meeting, record the manao of the participants and report back to the ‘Aha Kiole council of leaders. The council and moku reps include some of Molokai’s most prominent warriors, including Vanda Hanakahi, Wayde Lee, Malia Akutagawa, Joe Kalipi, Kanoho Helm, Cora Schnakenberg, Mervyn Dudoit, Walter Ritte and Kamalu Poepoe’s husband Mac.

“Through these moku meetings, we will gather information about how the island wants to proceed in terms of growth and development,” Poepoe said to the crowd. “And then the ‘Aha Kiole council will take these collected ideas and opinions and present them to the whole island. This will evolve into a document that can serve as a guide to direct protocol, and we plan to insert our work into the Molokai portion of the Maui County General Plan. We have support from federal, state, county and Hawaiian agencies. All of the other islands will be watching to see what can come from this,from our many voices together,” she said.

Poepoe’s opening remarks were followed by a federal/state overview from Kitty Simonds, executive director of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council (WESTPAC). The well-funded federal agency first seized upon the community-based management ideas behind ‘Aha Kiole o Molokai over five years ago, when it developed a locally engaged, integrated land-to-ocean management system to better sustain healthy fisheries throughout the western Pacific. Adopting the best practices from the ancient Oceanic traditions of stewardship including the Hawaiian ahupuaa and moku systems, WESTPAC’s “‘aha moku” (gathering of the district) approach was, Simonds explained, the basis for a statewide push, beginning in 2005, to incorporate sland-style management of natural resources into Hawaii state law. In 2007, the state Legislature created the ‘Aha Kiole Advisory Committee, whose mandate was to promote best practices in the state for natural and cultural resource management by localizing it at the moku and ahupuaa levels. Last May, Senate Bill 23 unanimously passed both the state House and Senate. Its intent was to upgrade the four-year-old ‘Aha Kiole Advisory Committee into a full-blown council, which would interact with the state Legislature and the DLNR on land and natural resource management issues. But Gov. Neil Abercrombie vetoed the bill in July, dissolving the ‘Aha Kiole Advisory Committee, and thus leaving ‘Aha Kiole o Molokai as the original–and only surviving–vestige of what might have been.

On the national level, Simonds noted, President Barack Obama issued an executive order in 2009 establishing an Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force. Its tools include what a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website defines as “a comprehensive, adaptive, integrated, ecosystem-based, and transparent spatial planning process…for analyzing current and anticipated uses of ocean [and other] areas.”

Simonds concluded for the gathering, “It’s kind of funny, because that is exactly how the ‘aha moku system works and how regional councils like WESTPAC work.”

The visionary isle

Next up was DLNR’s low-key Board Chairman William Aila, who tried to impress on his audience the importance of the challenge Molokai faces. “If this ‘aha moku process works here, it may be used on other islands–or maybe not. There are other groups, other processes we’ll listen to, but this is the process with the most potential for arriving at a Molokai solution, so we are looking to you folks to have a real dialogue,” Aila said.

Colette Machado, a veteran Molokai defender who is now chairman of the Board of Trustees for the state’s Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), reiterated the difficulties of reaching a detailed consensus.

“Nothing is short and sweet,” she said. “Nothing is quick and dirty. It’s something that all of you have to put your blood, sweat and tears into. It’s not just here-today-and-gone-tomorrow.

“It may sound like I’m scolding you folks, but I’m really not,” Machado said.

Battle-scarred, familiar with past failed attempts at planning, and leery of optimistic bromides, Machado nevertheless stressed the institutional support that WESTPAC’s ‘aha moku planning concepts have garnered during the past five years. If ‘Aha Kiole o Molokai can come up with a declaration that accurately reflects the island’s wishes, that document could be incorporated in county planning decisions, she said. OHA was prepared to help fund the ‘Aha Kiole program statewide, should a revised Senate Bill 23, planned for reintroduction this session, become law. “This legislative mandate could help to protect nearshore resources by ensuring mauka-to-makai management,” Machado said. “The reason OHA believes in this is because I believe we will see our own government within the government of the state of Hawaii–within my lifetime, I hope. All of this information will become invaluable to our native Hawaiian nation.”

The people speak

On Dec. 28, the first of the moku meetings was held in the moku of Manae, at Kilohana Community Center on the east end of the island. Sixty-four people signed the attendance sheet. The Kawela moku meeting was held Jan. 4 with 125 attendees; the Palaau moku meeting Jan. 11 had 62 present, and the Kaluakoi moku meeting on Jan. 17 had 58 people. At the meetings, attendees were each given three minutes to express themselves, and then asked to distill their manao onto Post-It notes that were attached to big sheets corresponding to one of five categories: Cruise Tour Industry, Development/Taxes/Tourism, Land Use, Ocean Use/Fishing, Other.

Transcripts and attendance rolls of the meetings, including the verbatim manao from 429 Post-It notes, were distributed to the ‘Aha Kiole. With a few exceptions, they revealed a widespread fear that allowing cruise ships, even a little one, to visit Molokai would open the flood gates to uncontrollable tourism. There’s antipathy toward jet-skis and helicopters, fishing during species’ spawning times, taxing kuleana lands, vacation rentals taking over the waterfront, commercial hunting…and Maui: “Please do not turn Molokai into Maui,” wrote one respondent.


Early Saturday morning, Jan. 21, the Explorer returned to Kauanakai’s port, which the US Coast Guard, in order to discourage a repeat of the Nov. 26 blockade, had declared a “security zone” for three hours. An armed flotilla–a Coast Guard cutter, jet-skis and several zodiacs–patrolled the waters around the port’s long wharf, some of the latter reportedly manned by San Francisco-based members of a “Marine Safety and Security Team,” or MSST. Created in 2002, the MSSTs are the Coast Guard’s anti-terrorist squads, tailored to provide port and harbor security. Also on hand were the FBI, state officials and Maui County police.

To greet the Explorer, a contingent of about 50 island warriors held signs and shouted, “GO HOME!”–at passengers and security personnel–through a chain-link fence.

The visit went without incident, as promised, but the heavy show of securitiy rankled the proud Islanders. “Most of the protest today was not really against the cruise ship, it was against the strong-arm tactics of the governor, which were way too heavy-handed and a waste of taxpayer money,” Ritte told KITV reporter Catherine Cruz. Aila acknowledged to the press that the protesters’ anger was directed at the state and federal security operation as much as at the ship and said he was planning “a more measured response” next time.

Manao: What They’re Saying in the Moku

When tourists experience Molokai aloha they cry and bring it back with them. This changes the world for the better,” wrote a participant.

“There are two documents that address Molokai tourism,” wrote another. “Use these standards when evaluating the right forms of tourism for us.”

“Food security: Grow enough to be self-sufficient and to feed visitors too.”

“Open up beach access and access roads on all Molokai Ranch lands.”

“In order to have a healthy watershed, we need to control deer populations which are devastating our forests. Maybe this can also create income for the island.”

“Community watch groups to help with drug trafficking and use.”

“Just as in ancient times, set up a system where all community hui together and laulima (by the hundreds or thousands) to work on major projects at least once a month.”

“Determine in-stream flow standards and submit them to the state DLNR and Water Commission to protect our streams.”

“I support rules that protect fishing and the reefs. I support rebuilding the fishponds. Educate people how to do that so we have fish.”

“It’s time to move to community based action.”