' Taropy '

Healing an Ahupua‘a

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He'eia wetlands 1920s: a community breadbasket.

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Aerial of the He'eia ahupua'a showing the wetlands, fishponds and reefs. 

"By managing He‘eia as an ahupua‘a, an interlinked series of environments running from mountain to sea, the community hopes to treat the various parts and heal the whole."


By Jan TenBruggencate


A heavy rain in the Ko‘olau Mountains launches a muddy flow through the degraded hillside woodlands, across the marshy He‘eia flats, through the He‘eia fishpond, and out into the sea. There, all that sediment, rich in nutrients, fertilizes acres of alien algae that choke Kāne‘ohe Bay’s vast coral reefs.


Now, a unique partnership led by the He‘eia community and supported by The Nature Conservancy is trying to change things—to replant the upland forest and to replace the swamp with taro fields, or lo‘i kalo, and a sediment-trapping marsh planted in native wetland species. A small lo‘i kalo has already been established to begin the long process of restoration.


“This project is something the community has needed for more than 30 years,” said Māhealani Cypher, a longtime community advocate who was born and raised in He‘eia.  “We needed to bring this land back to life.”


By managing He‘eia as an ahupua‘a, an interlinked series of environments running from mountain to sea, the community hopes to treat the various parts and heal the whole.


Protecting the Reefs 

Kāne‘ohe Bay is a unique marine environment that includes the only barrier, patch and fringing reef system in the state. This combination of reef habitats harbors green sea turtles, manta rays, hammerhead sharks and many other native reef species.

“The Conservancy’s goal is to protect and restore the bay’s marine resources,” said Kim Hum, The Conservancy’s Hawai‘i marine director. “We support the He‘eia community’s broader efforts as a way to do that while strengthening their ability to serve as stewards of the region.” 

The wetland restoration effort goes by the name of Mahuahua ‘Ai o Hoi. It was launched by the Ko‘olaupoko Hawaiian Civic Club, and gets its name, Hoi, from the traditional name of the wetland area.


The effort to transform upper He‘eia grew out of a 2007 strategic plan to protect the bay, which included interviews with more than 50 members of the community, scientists and other stakeholders.


The sedimentation from degraded lands was identified as a major problem, but not the only one. There is a Department of Defense dump site within the ahupua‘a. The region is home to extensive residential development, whose covered surfaces increase storm flows during heavy rain. And there are pollutants and nutrients from the urban environment that flow seaward.


To gain control over the sedimentation problem, the community has obtained from the Hawai‘i Community Development Authority a 38-year lease on 404 acres, and it has developed a plan to reduce sedimentation flow.


Marine biologist Kanekoa Kukea-Shultz serves as the Conservancy’s project manager for Kāne‘ohe. He also volunteers for Kako‘o ‘Ōiwi, the community non-profit organization that oversees the ahupua‘a project, and he previously worked with the non-profit Paepae o He‘eia, which is restoring the He‘eia Fishpond.


According to Kukea-Shultz, 202 acres of the leased acres are wetland. Of those acres, the community anticipates converting 200 acres to taro production, with the lo‘i walls built higher than usual to help the ponds capture storm flows and act as sediment traps.


“Much of the sediment is created and flows to the sea in pulses during periodic heavy rains,” he said. “The lo‘i will be designed to absorb these large pulse events.” In addition, the community is restoring native wetlands and fresh water fish ponds which will also reduce the amount of sediment flowing onto the reefs.


Restoring a Breadbasket

The community’s broader vision is to restore a prized tradition: He‘eia as a breadbasket. “The plan is to put poi on the table for everybody,” said kupuna Alice Hewett.

Hewett grew up in He‘eia and remembers working in her family’s McCabe Poi Shop as a 7-year-old. “We cleaned poi, and I sewed bags, a penny a bag, before we went to school. We had taro for breakfast, lunch and dinner if we could,” she said.


In those days, much of the work at the poi mill was done by boys from a nearby orphanage. The poi was delivered to families and markets, and occasionally people would come by the mill to purchase bags of poi directly.


A key piece of the He‘eia project is to ensure that the traditional knowledge of elders like Hewett is passed on to the younger generations.


The small pond that has already been planted includes several Hawaiian taro cultivars. Among them are moi, ha‘i, pi‘iali‘i and lehua. Hewett said each of these varieties seems to grow well in the He‘eia lo‘i.


“We already harvested twice. We gave poi to a lot of people,” she said.  


A portion of the land may be set aside for an aquaponic production, to produce salad greens and other crops. More than 20 acres will be cleared of invasive mangrove and planted in native grasses and sedges, both to trap sediment and to support native fishes.


In the upland area, a forest dominated by alien species like the octopus tree will be replanted in native and Polynesian introduced plants like ‘awa, ‘ulu, hala and mai‘a (kava, breadfruit, pandanus, banana). Portions of the land may also be planted in ‘uala (sweet potato) and other crops.


Kako‘o ‘Ō‘iwi anticipates much of the initial work will be performed on community work days by a range of volunteers, including prisoners, school groups and the general community.


“This area in the old days would feed the rest of the island in times of drought. We have in Hoi many springs,” said Cypher. “We want to repair the environmental damage, and feed people again.”


For the He‘eia community and for the Conservancy, the hope is that the project will transfer knowledge of traditional Hawaiian land stewardship practices and customs to a new generation, and that working within a functioning native wetland will help the reefs recover and strengthen the connection between people and their ‘āina.


Other project partners include the native plant organization Hui ku Maoli Ola, Paepae o He‘eia, Hawaii Community Development Authority, Hawaii Community Foundation, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Office of Hawaiian Affairs, State Office of Planning, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Services Center, and the State Department of Land and Resources Division of Aquatic Resources.



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