Friends know that this is the time of the year when we spend a few weeks on Maui, something we’ve been doing for many years. I can’t say why it became important for us to be here, but it is. We love the history, culture, music and people. I’m a great tour guide who happily does all the standard tourist things all over again whenever newcomers visit. We can never be locals in any sense of the word, but we can observe, respect, and enjoy. I’m also content just to be. In many ways it’s the best part. We are not in a hurry to do anything. Sitting on our lanai, I’m watching a brilliant rainbow form to the north. Molokai across the channel is ringed with a lei of clouds. Otherwise the sky is blue and the ocean bluer. The trades have picked up and the air is clear. Why not just enjoy taking it in? It’s almost instant relaxation when we get off the plane and smell the warm sea air. OK, I may have to adjust that a little. There is a certain aggravation that comes with baggage claim, the queue at the car rental place, and the horde of first time visitors trying to navigate toward the road to wherever they are going. That seems to be the universal condition of travel these days. But that’s not what I want to write about.
Except for 1,300 acres on the slopes of Haleakala, commercial pineapple farming on Maui died out almost a decade ago. The local Maui Gold is an amazing low acid, sweet pineapple grown mostly for the local market. Now the last sugar cane operation is closing down. It doesn’t mark the end of agriculture, but it does mark the end of plantation type farming. Not much land is required to produce an abundance of local produce to be consumed locally. A couple of cattle ranches, a goat dairy, landscaping nurseries, and flower farms continue to prosper, and are likely to continue doing so for a long time to come. They blend so well in harmony with the surrounding flora that they are seldom given more than glance by tourists who are more interested in getting to the top of Haleakala or winding their way to Hana. Those who stay on the beach never see them at all.
On the other hand, the introduction of sugar cane and pineapple in centuries past changed the landscape in dramatic ways. What was scrub covered sand dunes or forested mountain slopes became many thousands of acres of irrigated pineapple and sugar cane. Water was piped in through a series of ditches and pipes that disrupted natural flows. Labor was imported from Asia and Portugal in such numbers that no race or ethnicity is now in the majority. Native Hawaiians were part of the change, and also buried under it. In some ways one could say that plantation agriculture erased what had been and wrote an entirely new way being in its place. Now it’s happening again.
From the lanai of our rented condo, I look up at the vacant fields on the slopes of the West Maui Mountains, and wonder what will become of the land? The enormous vastness of the central valley, still covered with cane: what will become of that land? What will become of the water flowing through ancient ditches and pipes to places that are no longer irrigated? No doubt the owners will want to monetize the land’s value as best they can, and that raises all kinds of nightmarish possibilities. I have no say in the matter, but if I did I’d like to see it in the public domain. The owners would be paid something approximating a fair value, and decisions about future use could be made slowly with deliberation. Returning it to it’s state prior to agricultural development is not a very good idea, but nurturing it with non-invasive endemic and indigenous flora appropriate to climactic conditions might be a something to consider. So might encouragement of more small scale farming for local consumption.
As for the wags who either fear or hope for hotels, condos, and golf courses, not to worry. That market is close to saturation – I hope. I can’t see this place becoming another Dade or Collier County. The native Hawaiians in company with others who are deeply rooted in the history and culture of Hawaii have the political will and savvy to make that all but impossible.