Honoring the Konohiki

By Aja Hannah

At the Kīholo fishpond on the Kona side of Hawaiʻi Island, stewards of the land are restoring its native beauty. Water, clear like fresh cleaned glass, provides a home for native fish and visiting sea turtles. The world past the shore is open and bright and old and new all at once.

In historic Hawaiʻi, leaders in places like Kīholo and neighboring Kaʻūpūlehu managed the natural resources of the ahupua‘a, a traditional Hawaiian unit of land management, on behalf of ali‘i (the ruling class) and makaʻāinana (commoners).  

These local natural resource managers were called konohiki and their word was law: they could place and lift kapu (prohibitions) on the use and harvesting of resources in response to keen observations and conditions.

Today, communities have come together to pass on their cultural knowledge and add the language of science to it. Their goal is to return to place-based locally-led management and bring back the observation and adaptive management that marked the ancient konohiki system.  

“In Kīholo and Kaʻūpūlehu, we have strong communities committed to returning to traditional management that ensures wise stewardship and sustainable use of natural resources,” says Chad Wiggins, the Hawaiʻi Island marine program director for The Nature Conservancy.

The Gift of Kiholo

In 2011, Kīholo fishpond and the land surrounding it were donated to the Conservancy by Angus Mitchell, son of hair-care icon Paul Mitchell. After an initial assessment of the ecology in Kīholo fishpond, the Conservancy contacted families in the area. Together with the Department of Land and Natural Resources, Hui Aloha Kīholo, Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail and other groups, they developed a collaborative conservation plan for the ahupuaʻa, beginning with restoration of the fishpond.  

In April of 2013, TNC started organizing workdays with Hui Aloha Kīholo, where members of the community could participate in the restoration, and they continue today. Averaging 50 people strong, the volunteers have been removing invasive vegetation, which chokes the pond from its edges. So far, more than 1,300 people have contributed to returning healthy fish habitat to Kīholo fishpond.

Rebecca Most, the Conservancy’s Hawaiʻi Island marine coordinator, teaches participants throughout the workdays. She says, “As a science-based organization, The Conservancy can help build on traditional knowledge systems to bring the best of both worlds to this very special place. We also are incorporating the concept of kilo, to be an observer, through the activities we do.”

Some are doing even more. Alongside scientists, local leaders count the growing fish in the fishpond and record their size and numbers on a data sheet. They record the length of each fish in centimeters and kiko’o, a Hawaiian unit of measurement from the end of the thumb to the end of the index finger.

Wiggins describes this as “community-based science. Every aspect of scientific process is informed and refined by community members, start to finish.”

This exchange of information and the ability to make modifications depending on the weather, season, community and other factors is essential when following in the footsteps of the konohiki. With support from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Conservancy is now supporting a network of fishpond and anchialine pool managers throughout North Kona and South Kohala to teach and learn from each other’s efforts.

Blending Science and Culture

Kuʻulei Keakealani, cultural director of Hui Aloha Kīholo, works closely with the Conservancy at Kīholo and Kaʻūpūlehu, and she embraces this mixture of culture and science as a “blending the two schools of knowledge.”

She likens today’s local leaders to konohiki of the past in that the volunteers take responsibility for stewardship of the land. While these new generations may not have the same authority the konohiki once did, the kupa ʻāina (the people of the place) are now able to make educated recommendations, culturally and scientifically, about the use of the land, and to back them up with documented evidence.

Why are so many people involved at Kīholo and volunteering for manual labor?

Wiggins believes that some people are driven by their love of nature and giving back to this natural place, while others love the social interaction and still others love the cultural practices. He adds, “The families of this ahupua‘a are returning to these lands, ready to work hard to care for them, as their ancestors have done for hundreds of years, a return of the kupa ʻāina as leaders of Kīholo.”

Keakealani says one of the main reasons she joined was for the generations that came before her. “I look at Kīholo as a place that has built me, so why would I not be part of these efforts that helped rebuild Kīholo.”

Her favorite workday occurred when four generations of one local family were present. She hopes her three children, all daughters aged 16, 14 and four, will assume the familial role and become stewards of the land as well. She is happy that people will no longer have to ask who last took care of these historical places.

“Our hands will continue to touch the soil, the ponds, the waters and the sand,” says Keakealani.

Years of work remains to be done, including building fences to keep non-native goats at bay, planting native vegetation, cleaning the dirt out of the fishpond and rebuilding the historic fishpond walls — all of which will require the commitment of many hands united in a common cause.

To find out what you can do to help Kīholo, contact Rebecca Most at rmost@tnc.org for the date and time of the next workday. Most says there is plenty of work to be done by people of all skill levels and ages — just bring your aloha and willingness to learn from Kīholo.

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