A tale of two foods

Why the legislature should support the perpetuation of taro by providing opportunities for growers to get on the land.

Emily Kandagawa

This weekend provided an interesting juxtaposition of Hawaiʻi’s past and present, demonstrating our diverse but collectively intertwined heritage as kama‘āina to these islands.  While Waikīkī hosted the 12th Annual Waikīkī Spam® Jam, many people gathered in Hana, Maui to celebrate the 22nd Annual East Maui Taro Festival.

The Waikīkī Spam® Jam calls itself a cultural tradition and one of the top annual food festivals in Hawaiʻi. During the festival, volunteers also help to collect donations of Spam for the Hawai‘i Food Bank, showcasing our unique local values of lōkahi and kuleana.  While Spam has definitely earned a place in local cuisine and lore, the Spam® Jam begs the question as to what other foods might be considered part of our cultural tradition, worthy of annual celebration reflecting both local pride and our shared community values.

The East Maui Taro Festival provides at least one response. According to organizers, the East Maui Taro Festival was born in 1992 to “draw the people of Häna together for a common good, to re-build cultural pride, to share the uniqueness of this community with the rest of the world, to enhance its economic base, and to provide a means to network with other farmers, artisans, and scientists.” Since its inception, the East Maui Taro Festival has consistently achieved this vision, bringing together community members and others from throughout the state to share, celebrate and enjoy one of the oldest, most nurturing and most culturally significant sources of food in Hawai‘i since time immemorial.

The vision behind the East Maui Taro Festival is not necessarily an isolated one, and it was with a very similar vision that the Taro Security and Purity Task Force was formed in 2008. This weekend at the 22nd Annual East Maui Taro Festival, the Taro Task Force helped to further both its own vision and that of the East Maui Taro Festival by hosting a booth in the Hāna ballpark, showcasing Hawaiian kalo varieties while distributing 100 pounds of taro, with samples of over 9 kalo varieties and over 600 huli for individuals to grow, free of charge.

The Taro Security and Purity Task Force was created by the legislature in 2008 under Act 211, and was given the duty to guide policy and research related to taro and taro farming.  Its responsibilities also include supporting the perpetuation, economic viability and cultural vitality of taro and taro farming in the state. As a staple starch crop, taro plays a critically important role in meeting Hawai‘i’s food security goals.  The task force released a legislative report in 2010 and again in 2014 with recommendations based on an extensive community consultation process.  In both documents, the task force found that many lo‘i kalo (wetland taro) sites remain in upland conservation districts under state jurisdiction and that affordable access to taro lands in each ahupua‘a on each island was a high priority for young farmers and communities looking to increase local food security.  The two together makes good sense; one to caretake the other just as Häloa, kalo, does for man.

To address the findings in its report, and working closely with the DOA and DLNR, the task force submitted two bills this year, SB2407 and SB2241. These bills would have allowed DLNR to better protect and connect wetland taro sites in their inventory to people interested in taro farming.  Unfortunately, both bills failed to pass the legislature, with SB2241 SD1 HD2 dying in conference committee.

SB2241 SD1 HD2 was carefully refined to clarify that the measure does not prevent nor inhibit private land owners from selling or developing private property, and does not impact lands already encumbered or developed on state-owned properties.  Moreover, because Important Agricultural Lands (IAL) designations are explicitly excluded from application to lands held in the conservation district (HRS205-49), SB2241 SD1 HD2 became critical to closing the gap in protecting these traditionally important agricultural sites.

By allowing DLNR to lease the small portion of their lands that were traditionally used for wetland taro cultivation, the bill sought to also create economic opportunities for our young taro farmers to access land, particularly important in this increasingly diversified and growing market. SB2241 SD1 HD2 provided a small step forward to make this win-win legislation a reality.

The biggest opponent of the bill has been the Land Use Research Foundation (LURF), a quasi-nonprofit lobbying group whose members read like the who’s who of landowners and developers in the state.  Fueled by last year’s tantalizing access to public lands under the now defunct Public Lands Development Corps, it appears that any bill that might keep lands out of development, even conservation lands and traditional cultural sites such as ancient lo‘i kalo, aren’t beyond the desire of LURF.

Executive director of LURF, David Arakawa, was featured in an Independent article on March 10, 2014 for having failed to register as a lobbyist for the past several years. Despite hundreds of testimony in support of this proactive legislation, LURF seems to be calling the shots and the bill died in conference committee, with members only agreeing on small changes to existing law that would add taro preservation as a goal of our state, but not legislation to protect taro lands.

In contrast, SB2658 HD2, which did pass this session, expanded uses for agricultural lands, and paved the way for solar energy facilities to occupy agricultural lands. While the legislature seems willing to assist large landowners in establishing alternative income sources on agricultural lands, they unfortunately failed to pass legislation to protect lands best used for growing taro or a number of good bills that would have increased the resiliency of small farms.  We need the legislature to make concrete decisions in support of food security and support our local agricultural products. Taro cannot simply remain the image of dozens of logos that sell the face Hawai‘i, while our once abundant taro fields lay fallow or become slated for development or worse.  To achieve food security, the legislature must support the perpetuation of taro by providing opportunities for growers to get on the land.

We cannot eat money. Judging by this weekend, it is easy to see the desire to consume and plant kalo is growing among the younger generation.  There is a hunger for more, and that is something we should all encourage.

The bond that connects Native Hawaiians to kalo remains a sacred one, and it is our kuleana to preserve it.  As the plant that has sustained the people of Hawai‘i since time immemorial, kalo is not only integral to the identity of Native Hawaiians, but also to the State of Hawai‘i as a whole.

If you would like more information about the taro bills introduced in this 2014 legislative session and the Taro Task Force, please visit hawaiikalo.org or email questions to [email protected]. The author is the coordinator of the Taro Purity and Security Task Force.