Big ideas for Molokai Ranch buy, then quiet . . .

Lamplighter Energy discussed growing hibiscus as biofuel, but no follow-up

Walter Ritte discusses the future of Molokai Ranch on Tuesday at Kualapuu Cookhouse. Ritte said the ranch going up for sale has opened the door for the community to influence the future of the property. -- The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

KAUNAKAKAI – On March 10 at the Kilohana Community Center, Andre De Rosa sat before a dozen Molokai residents and told them of his plans to buy a third of the island.

With the Akaku cameras rolling, the chief executive officer of Lamplighter Energy talked about growing a type of hibiscus on 20,000 acres to be used for biofuel in South Korea. His offers to the community were just as grand — perhaps some 200 jobs and 5,000 acres for the community to farm.

The video of De Rosa is about all that some Molokai residents have seen of the man who once expressed interest in buying 55,575 acres of Molokai Ranch land. Many had no idea of his plans. And, none of the people who first got wind of his proposal seems to have heard from him since.

“The first thing we asked him for was time,” longtime Hoolehua activist Walter Ritte said Tuesday. “The second thing we asked him for was what was his plan in writing. We haven’t heard from him since. So I guess he’s giving us time.”

A call to the office number on De Rosa’s business card reaches a message saying the line has been disconnected, and a call to his cellphone goes straight to voicemail.

Hoolehua homesteaders Bobby Alcain (from left), Anela Albino, Kalehua Sproat-Augustiro and Kilia Purdy-Avelino talk story Wednesday on Alcain’s Hoolehua farm. The group doesn’t think Lamplighter’s proposal is feasible because of the lack of water and infrastructure. -- The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

When owner GL Ltd. put Molokai Ranch on the market for $260 million back in September, Scott Carvill, principal broker and owner of Carvill Sotheby’s International Realty, said there were plenty of inquiries. So far, no one aside from De Rosa appears to have publicly proposed anything. Carvill said Friday that he couldn’t comment on Lamplighter, prospective buyers or the progress of the ranch sale.

But with the ranch on the market, community members are feeling hopeful. The land that divided them a decade ago is bringing them together for a common cause — ensuring that whoever buys it is on the same page as the community.

“To me, it’s exciting because we have a place that we fought for 40 years to keep it in its natural state,” Ritte said. “Today we have the opportunity now to build its future.”

Community buy-in

De Rosa told the community on March 10 that his Hawaii-based company invests in renewable energy projects. In a nutshell, his proposal for Molokai Ranch called for contracting with Korea Electric Power Corp. to ship kenaf, a type of edible hibiscus, from Hale O Lono Harbor to South Korea for use as biofuel. De Rosa envisioned using desalinization to provide water and reforestation to recharge the aquifer. He said that the kenaf would be phased out over 30 years to allow for diversified agriculture and that open and controlled access would be allowed on another 30,000 acres.

Lifelong Maunaloa resident Terri McCutcheon oversees the counter at Big Wind Kite Factory in Maunaloa on a quiet afternoon. Whoever the buyer of the ranch ends up being, McCutcheon said she wants to see Maunaloa thrive again.  -- The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

Glenn Teves, extension agent at the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources office on Molokai, said he didn’t see “the economic feasibility nor the competitive advantages.”

“Most of the ranch areas don’t have access to water and water delivery infrastructure, nor do they have an allocation of water from the State Commission on Water Resource Management,” Teves said. “Water is a scarce resource on Molokai, and I have a hard time seeing it used for non-food crops on this scale.”

He said that desalinization is too expensive for most crops, and that recharging the aquifer “is not something that occurs once you plant trees; it takes decades and hundreds of years or more.” Teves also pointed to Molokai’s high cost of living and nation-high rates of fuel and electricity.

“How many crops are we exporting from Hawaii? You can count it on one hand, and this says a lot,” Teves said. “For the most part, I think corporate agriculture is dead in Hawaii. We don’t have competitive advantages over other tropical areas of the world.”

Community members don’t seem convinced either. Sitting around a table on Bobby Alcain’s Hoolehua farm, a group of homesteaders broke down the proposal and the hesitance born of years listening to big project pitches.

“It’s a lot of talk, but in reality we know the biggest hindrance is water,” Alcain said.

He likes the prospects of jobs and reforestation but is concerned about 30 years of monocropping and sending the products overseas.

“It’s a 30-year contract of nothing staying here other than the 5,000 acres,” he said.

Kilia Purdy-Avelino said homesteaders have plenty of farmland that they need to take advantage of without “somebody trying to bribe us with 5,000 acres.”

“Nobody got this kind of lifestyle and something like that going change our lifestyle,” she said. “If we as homesteaders can create an economic engine by actually growing food in one natural way, it would be way better.”

The homesteaders also worried about west end infrastructure.

Kalehua Sproat-Augustiro said the pier at Hale O Lono Harbor needs repairs and isn’t ready to become a launching point for shipments to South Korea. She wondered what the community would have to give up in exchange for a new industry on island.

“What is the price we going pay for employment?” she asked.

After so many attempts over the years to bring large-scale projects to the small island, residents are cautious and protective of their resources.

“Now, everything to us is like one red flag,” Anela Albino said. “Times are not getting easier for us. We live month to month. We realize the wealth we have is the water.”

Maunaloa residents like Terri McCutcheon just want to see businesses reopen in the town. A lifelong Maunaloa resident and a former ranch employee, McCutcheon has felt the effects of industries that come and go.

“All I want to see is Maunaloa thrive again,” she said while running the cash register at Big Wind Kite Factory on a quiet Thursday. “Not only Maunaloa, because when businesses close down, the whole island feels it.”

De Rosa expressed an interest in working with the community, saying that “what ends up happening here is going to happen because the community either supports it or it doesn’t.” But the radio silence since has baffled community members.

“He’s lost a lot of respect for me,” said Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, who attended the meeting in March.

Next generation

In 2008, Molokai Ranch’s proposal to build 200 luxury homes at Laau Point on the west end divided the community. After it fell through, the ranch shuttered most of its operations and laid off about 120 people.

Now, however, Ritte said the same people he clashed with over decade ago are joining forces to influence the future of the ranch.

Residents created We Are Molokai Pule O’o, a nod to the island’s spiritual and educational roots, and marched from the airport to Maunaloa in a show of unity.

“A lot of relationships were broken from that experience (of Laau Point),” said Malia Akutagawa, an assistant professor of law and Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and the island representative for ‘Aha Kiole o Molokai. “We’ve come out of that, and so the unity march was to acknowledge that we are one island, and since Molokai Ranch is selling its land, we need to set our differences aside and let go of any hurt.”

Ritte also saw an opportunity for the older activists to pass the baton and called a meeting of teachers and young students at the college.

“All of us that have been involved all these years, we’re kind of over the hill already,” Ritte said. “So we decided we were going to use this as an opportunity to say to the next generation, ‘It’s your turn.’ . . . The response we got was they were waiting to be asked.”

Rawlins-Fernandez said it’s an opportunity “that was never extended to me growing up.”

“We’re taught to respect our kupuna, and we don’t want to step on anyone’s toes, so to have the invitation to take on these kinds of kuleana, I think, will help to direct our community toward a better future,” she said.

From May 24 to Aug. 2, the college will offer an Aloha Aina fellowship that will educate participants in the history of Molokai, Native Hawaiian politics and activism. In preparation for the ranch sale, fellows will help update “Molokai: Future of a Hawaiian Island,” the plan created by community members around the time of Laau Point, and take it around the community for input and approval. Ritte said there’s currently funding for eight fellows.

Akutagawa said the community doesn’t want any “quick fixes.”

“Past developers have learned the hard way, to their detriment, that not working with us ultimately proves kind of disastrous,” she said. “We’ve got to talk story. We’ve got to build trust. We’ve got to know the intentions are good.”

Ritte said that whoever buys the ranch won’t just be investing in land.

“You have to realize it’s not going to be separate — your land and us,” he said. “You buying into a community and their future. They can realize that, I think that eliminates a lot of problems.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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