Restoring land, food, and people at Heʻeia
Freshly-harvested taro (Kalo, Colocasia esculenta) being cut in preparation for cooking. Cultivation of taro is a keystone element of Hawaiian social-ecological systems. Photo Credit – Sean Marrs
250 years ago in the Hawaiian islands, Indigenous resource management practices sustainably supported a population of more than a million people. Within this context, native habitats and biodiversity co-prospered with a thriving human community. Today, to feed roughly the same number of people, Hawai’i imports 90% of its food and has experienced significant loss of native species, habitat, and coral. The Heʻeia Reserve is combining Indigenous and conventional science to restore lands to help solve these problems.
The Reserve works with its community-based co-management partners to restore and manage Indigenous wetland agro-ecology systems (loʻi kalo) and associated aquaculture systems (loko iʻa). The systems are cultivated by lineal descendants and other local families, which builds cultural identity, connection to place, and food self-sufficiency. Early findings show this approach is successfully restoring habitat for native plants and animals. It also contributes to Hawaiʻi’s sustainability goals, which include doubling food production in 20 years, protecting watersheds and ecosystems, and facilitating community-based management.
“Ancient Hawaiians figured out how to manage wetlands to increase their ecosystem services—specifically food production, water filtration, and aquifer recharge,” says Dr. Kawika Winter, manager of the He’eia Reserve. “They did this through a resource management approach we call ‘ecomimicry,’ whereby ecosystem processes were managed to support human populations within them.”
An endangered Hawaiian Stilt (ʻAeʻo, Himantopus mexicanus knudseni) foraging in a wetland agro-ecosystem (loʻi) within the Reserve. Photo credit – Sean Marrs.
Just as the Hawaiians of old, contemporary communities use ecomimicry to restore habitats for native fish, insects, plants, and birds, including the endangered Hawaiian stilt, while restoring Indigenous food systems. Food security has become a big issue during the pandemic, and the approaches at Heʻeia are addressing that issue as well. In addition, current estimates suggest that if the family volunteer farming program goes to scale, it could increase returns to the state’s economy by $2 million.
“The place that we’re working at becomes more abundant and healthier and restored,” says a participant in the program. “The thriving factor increases as we work not only for my own family, but for the place.”
The partnerships that support this work extend beyond the Hawai’i throughout the Reserve System and NOAA, according to Winter.
“Standardized water-quality monitoring is foundational to the NERRS entire research program, and that’s what our community wants us to do,” says Winter. “Beyond that, we are trying to develop a career pipeline for local students. The various fellowship and internship opportunities within NOAA allow us to open the door to local students for some of the best professional development opportunities around.”
“I’ve been involved in conservation my entire life, and professionally for the last 15 years. I’ve never witnessed such strong community support for conservation work,” he adds. “The level of support we have is the envy of conservation efforts elsewhere, and I’m really proud that our community truly appreciates the work we’re doing.”