Limahuli Garden and Preserve


Modeling Sustainability Solutions

While some hold the worldview that humans are innately detrimental to nature, and that in order to save ecosystems we must remove people from ecosystems, we subscribe to a different worldview. We believe that people are the solution.

From the ancestral wisdom of indigenous cultures to the frontiers of both applied and theoretical ecology, and even into popular media via some of the greatest thinkers of our time—such as Michael Pollan—more and more people are subscribing to the idea that there are ways to manage resources such that nature is enhanced so that humankind may reap the benefits.

The methods of interacting with our natural world such that humankind benefits at the expense of nature are not the only option. In fact, these strategies are increasingly becoming the ways of the past. At Limahuli Garden and Preserve, on the North Shore of Kaua‘i, we strive to be a model that demonstrates ways we can draw upon ancestral Hawaiian wisdom and couple it with the best of modern science to restore the collective health of our ecosystems and communities.

The idea that humans are intrinsically detrimental to ecosystems is deeply ingrained in many people that I meet—particularly non-indigenous people—and the concept that humans can actually be beneficial to ecosystems is often met with skepticism. To get people on the same page, I give them the example of the humble beekeeper. Bees and the honey they produce are a natural resource, right? Well, beekeepers manage this natural resource by creating habitat (i.e., beehives), thus giving the bees homes and protection which, in turn, facilitates an increase in their population. As a result of having more bees in an area, more flowers get pollinated. With more plants getting pollinated, nature is able to produce more fruits and seeds, which means more progeny for the plants themselves and more food for animals—both wildlife and humans.

So, through management of bees, humans enable nature to produce more fruits, more seeds and more honey than it would if humans didn’t manage the bees—and these are all things that benefit us. In other words, nature is enhanced and we reap the benefits.

This is just one example. In his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and more recently in the movie Food, Inc., Michael Pollan has popularized another example in Polyface Farm (in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley). There a farmer has created a system of management—through an ingenious system of rotation that gives the plants and animals what they want from each other—that takes very little input, produces a mind-blowing abundance of food and creates a relatively minuscule carbon footprint. These examples demonstrate that we can manage ecosystems in ways that mutually benefit both nature and humanity.

Well, what if all of our management systems used this approach? And how can these concepts can be applied in Hawai‘i? Luckily for us, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel because the ancient Hawaiians already figured it out. By looking back to their traditional resource management practices and philosophies we see find models that can be revived to address many of the key sustainability issues that we struggle with today. Demonstrating the relevance and potential benefits of these practices and philosophies through ecological and cultural restoration is what we do at Limahuli Garden and Preserve.

Increasing ecosystem services

Many Edible Hawaiian Islands readers are familiar with the term “ecosystem services.” This refers to the multitude of natural resources and processes supplied by ecosystems that benefit humankind. Common examples are clean drinking water and abundant fisheries, and there are countless others. At Limahuli, we use these two critical ecosystem services as examples of the benefit of returning to the ancient Hawaiian system of lo‘i and loko, or taro fields and fishponds.

Far too often, people view taro-field agriculture and fishpond aquaculture as mutually exclusive components of the old Hawaiian system. In actuality, they are coupled components. Lo‘i systems often involved converting a large percentage of a valley floor into a flooded taro-field system. This, in and of itself, helped to enhance several key ecosystem services. Many are aware that this floodedfield system helped to reduce topsoil loss during major rain events as the silt from storm-swollen steams was redistributed to the valley floor instead of being allowed to flow out into the ocean, where it could potentially harm coral reefs. These regular siltation events—similar to those that are famous from the Nile delta—helped to keep the fields fertile.

Another ecosystem service of flooded-field agriculture is that it created wetland habitat for waterfowl—some of which, like the native duck or kōloa, were an important food source. The presence of these waterfowl further helped to keep the fields fertile. A third ecosystem service was that it provided habitat for important species of fish, such as mullet and others, which in the past would naturally migrate from the estuaries in the ocean to the base of the waterfalls in larger streams and rivers.

A fourth ecosystem service, which is arguably the most important, is that flooded-field agriculture helped recharge the aquifer by slowing down the water going through the valley and increasing its surface area. While this last point has yet to be demonstrated scientifically, common sense suggests that it is likely true. With more recharge of the aquifer occurring under this management system, the aquifer grew and springs popped out at higher and higher elevations, which then created more agricultural and habitation opportunities. In the past 150-plus years, abandonment of this system has led to a significant decline of these critical ecosystem services.

One unintended consequence of agriculture is nutrification, or an unnatural increase of nutrients in water systems. Nutrification in waterways has been well documented to cause algal blooms, which in turn can cause destruction of coral reefs and even massive fish dieoffs. Even the most well-intentioned organic farms have been known to contribute to nutrification. The ancient flooded-field system undoubtedly increased the amount of nutrients flowing towards the ocean, but the ancient Hawaiians had an ingenious solution that turned this potentially dangerous byproduct into a beneficial resource. They did this though the use of large fishponds along the coast—either in the sand dunes or out on the reefs themselves. These fishponds contained the algal blooms for the purpose of raising herbivorous fish, such as mullet and others. The ecosystem service of managing nutrified water as described above was the reefs produced more herbivorous fish than it could on its own.

Living off the fat of the land

The old Hawaiians would say that all they were doing was living off the “fat” of the land. That’s just a humble way of expressing that the management practices and philosophies they employed yielded such an amazing abundance that the system produced in excess of the needs of the people (and keep in mind that the pre-contact population was approximately a million people). Beyond the practices described above, resource-management philosophies guided ancient society to push this system to sustainably produce a super abundance.

Some of the practices were described above, but what are the philosophies that led to such an amazing increase in abundance? Well, at Limahuli, a big part of what we do is educate visitors, residents and school groups about what these are and how they can be reincorporated into our lives today.

Many Hawai‘i residents are familiar with the Hawaiian concept that the health of the land directly affects the health of the ocean, and vice versa. This is undoubtedly a key element to the body of philosophy that was at the foundation of the ancient resource management practices, but I would contend that there is one that is even more central, and that is to always give before you take. The concept of giving before taking is reflected in everything from Hawaiian proverbs to protocols to practices. While these all live today on some level, they are not practiced by a high enough percentage of our communities. So just stop for a moment and imagine… an entire society founded on the concept of giving before taking in every conceivable relationship—from interpersonal to interacting with natural resources such as the forest, the stream and the ocean. Hopefully, you will see an island community flourishing together with its ecosystem. Our goal at Limahuli is to play a role in manifesting a return to that state.