The State of Aloha

I went to college in San Francisco and wrote for the university’s paper. It was not uncommon to see activists of all stripes.

Bike messengers wanted equal rights with automotive commuters. Students were driving military recruiters off campus. The pole dancers’ union (Local 790) wanted a better contract. You name it, we saw it.

Then there was Monsanto. It didn’t seem real. My friend from Santa Cruz provided the perfect catchphrase for the anti-Monsanto movement: “Blame it on Monsanto.”

It was rumored that Monsanto’s corn seeds were spreading uncontrollably in Mexico. Monsanto seeds supposedly spread to fields and farms that nobody wanted, and started contaminating the indigenous strains of corn.

I was skeptical. That was preposterous, I thought. It had to be another fable made up by neo-hippie activists that need to get out of the Bay Area every now and again.

In law school, Monsanto came up again, but only in passing. I learned that ultraconservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas worked for Monsanto as a young lawyer soon after graduating from Yale Law School in the 1970s. By then, I was living in Kansas, where the only protesters were for the right.

I never thought Monsanto would find its way to the islands, but I was wrong. Monsanto’s here. The fields along Piilani Highway at the entrance to Kihei are Monsanto products. There is an even more visible presence on Molokai and in Central Oahu. Kamehameha Schools has been leasing land on Oahu to Monsanto since 1999. The Monsanto seed company brings in more money to the state than sugar and pineapple. This industrial giant is a new player in the islands and is considered a rising star in the business community.

The protesters came here too. On the north shore, anti-Monsanto graffiti appears on stop signs, the bunker-turned-message-board next to Maliko Gulch, and even on that bike path between Paia Bay and Baldwin Beach Park. This year, there have been two large protests in Kahului in which folks gathered to march against the company.

A lot of the anti-Monsanto folks on Maui are cousins of the Northern Californians. In fact, some are former Northern Californians. But before we just wipe off the graffiti and marginalize the protesters as bourgeois Mainlanders, consider Vernon Bowman.

Bowman is not your average anti-Monsantonian. He would most definitely stand out in the vitamin room at Mana Foods. He’s a 75-year-old soybean farmer from Indiana. Bowman bought Monsanto’s soybean seeds that were resistant to Roundup and other herbicides. Monsanto products like this one are limited to a single harvest and require purchasing new seeds every year. Bowman bought Monsanto seeds secondhand at a grain elevator and used them late in the planting season. He even considered them subpar seeds.

Monsanto sued for patent infringement and won around $84,000. The case went up to the United States Supreme Court earlier this year. Justice Thomas did not recuse himself, but it didn’t matter. The high court ruled unanimously for Monsanto. When it handed down the ruling in May, Monsanto had already sued 466 farmers and smaller agriculture businesses in 2013 alone. So maybe Monsanto protesters aren’t just wackos.

On the other hand, Monsanto says that their fears are misguided. Monsanto products are not going to hurt organic farmers. They will not cross-pollinate with indigenous and native plants, and they are safe to consume.

In fact, Monsanto likes to point to the papaya case to show that genetically modified foods have a place here. Local farmers have fought against the papaya ringspot virus since the 1940s. By the 1990s, it threatened the very existence of papayas in the islands. To combat the problem, the government introduced a genetically modified and virus-resistant papaya.

The “rainbow” papaya created a buffer zone that allowed farmers to harvest an organic, nongenetically modified strain of papaya. It was a perfect example of organic farmers and agribusiness working together for the benefit of the community.

Now it seems that the Big Island may be banning even that papaya.

On top of its attempts to allay such fears, Monsanto is giving back to the community. It awards public schools thousands of dollars to fund science programs and horticulture. The company also provides much-needed jobs on Molokai and has helped to diversify our state’s tourist-based economy. State and local governments are happy with the revenues and support, and they like relying on something other than the tourist industry.

Genetically modified foods and tampering with the building blocks of our food will never sit well with us. It’s a new frontier. On the other hand, science is about exploring the unknown to make life better. The more involved Monsanto becomes in Hawaii, the more people will want to know about it and its seeds.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Ilima Loomis’ “Neighbors.”

The State of Aloha

Today is more than an excuse for government workers to get a three-day weekend in August. It’s Admissions Day – the day our islands were admitted to the United States as the 50th state.

The path to statehood was long and arduous. The first to formally bring about statehood was none other than Prince Jonah Kuhio in 1919. During the first six decades of the 20th century, there were 16 petitions for statehood and 33 bills in Congress. All attempts failed until 1959.

By the end of World War II, the failure to admit Hawaii had become embarrassing. The United States justified its intense involvement in the war by recasting itself as the champion of democracy over tyranny. Our movies and media repackaged America as the world’s fighter of totalitarian government. We had become the representative of the free world.

Along with this bright and shining image came responsibility. If the United States sent its young men to fight dictators and destroy fascism, then how could it tolerate legalized racism in the American South? How could it ignore its own economic and ethnic inequality?

When the veterans came back to Hawaii, they demanded a change. (They weren’t the only ones. Ethnic minorities and Native American vets found themselves in similar situations.) They saw statehood as the best way to get out of the sugar plantations and Honolulu slums of their youth.

Still, there was opposition at every turn. The problem intensified when the United Nations put Hawaii on the infamous list of “Non-Self Governing Territories.” The list was an attempt to declare that certain places were still dealing with the adverse effects of colonialism and had not yet achieved their independence. Hawaii joined other quasi-independent places like Guam and American Samoa.

Hawaii was officially a colony – and the world was watching. Was it perhaps time to give up on statehood and go for complete independence?

In the late ’40s and throughout the 1950s, new countries were breaking away from their former colonial rulers. African countries declared their independence. The Philippines had finally become its own nation free from centuries of foreign rulers like Spain and the United States.

The worldwide liberation movement made many in the United States nervous. A lot of these new countries had red flags and Soviet allies. The Cold War was just getting started, and the last thing many wanted was to see a strong socialist or communist cell develop in the middle of the Pacific.

Communism became the new excuse to delay statehood. The anti-statehood faction argued that Communists had taken over Hawaii’s labor unions and parts of the Democratic Party. The Communists were the antithesis of a democratic society and there was no way Hawaii could be part of the union. It just wasn’t ready. The hysteria got so bad that the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee came to Hawaii and held hearings. The fight for statehood continued.

After purging itself of any taint of the vanguard party, Hawaii came out on top and declared that it was ready for statehood. It drafted its own constitution in the 1950s and unfurled a petition in Honolulu that stretched for miles. This was it. It was far better for Hawaii to become a state than allow radicalism to take hold. Finally, Congress gave in and Hawaii entered the union the same year Fidel Castro took over Cuba.

It was the start of the era we live in today. Admission meant that people in the United States had the right to travel freely to our islands. It is no coincidence that the first commercial jet plane full of tourists to Hawaii landed in the first year of statehood.

Our first year of statehood brought rapid change. The threat of communism was long gone. Hawaii was no longer some exotic island chain on the U.N.’s list of modern-day colonies. It was an accessible, safe place where people spoke English, used the American dollar and voted on Election Day.

But there were unintended results. Statehood allowed a generation of hippies to drop out of college campuses and start up nudist colonies and health food stores. Perhaps the most ironic thing about statehood is that its constitutional guarantees of free speech, open courts and free elections created the space for the Hawaiian Renaissance and sovereignty movement to start and flourish. Statehood allowed its citizens to challenge, well, the state.

Today marks the first day of our state. And when you think about what it took to get here, and what being a state allows us to do, it’s no wonder it’s a holiday.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” usually alternates Fridays with Ilima Loomis’ “Neighbors.” Ilima took the week off so Ben is filling in.

The State of Aloha

It looks like a vast carpet starting at the edge of Pukalani and descending the isthmus through Central Maui all the way to the West Maui Mountains. It rolls out from the edge of Maliko Gulch for miles all the way to Kihei. It’s in the background of thousands of photographs in the newspaper, vacation photos, and in family scrapbooks. It’s part of the scenery.

Most of the time cane fields are green and pleasing to the eye. Nobody knows what Maui was like before cane fields. We are among the last in the islands still producing sugar on an industrial scale. There are only two mills left in the state. Unlike the mill on the leeward side of Kauai, the Puunene mill is centrally located for everyone to see. This is one of the last places where you can still see harvested cane being hauled to the mill in gigantic vehicles that dwarf just about anything else on the road.

It’s living history. Right across the street from the mill is the aptly located museum devoted to the sugar industry. We all know that sugar is no longer king here, but many are content to know that we still produce the stuff on Maui.

Except for just one thing. After two steady and careful years of watching a cane field grow tall and green, we set it on fire. We’ve all seen the distinct thick column of smoke rising above the island. When burns are close to the highway, we get to see the red and brown earth and the charred remains of the cane. The smell of smoke fills the air.

Cane burning is part of life here on Maui, but lately it’s divided the community. The sucrose – the stuff that becomes the sugar – is in the cane stalk, not the leaves. Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. sets fire to the fields to remove leaves. It makes it easier to remove the stalks and transport them to the mill in Puunene. According to the HC&S website, burning the fields still remains the most economically sound way of removing the leaves.

Downwind towns like Kihei suffer. They are covered in ash and smoke. Residents have trouble breathing in all the smoke and dust kicked up from the fields. These days, more and more people – especially those who did not grow up with cane fires in their backyard – find the practice antiquated and hazardous. They say that it’s an obnoxious nuisance and an irritant for those with lung problems.

The state Department of Health has been conducting a study on the health effects of cane burning. Previews of the full study suggest that cane burning is problematic. Dr. Lorrin Pang, the state’s district health officer for Maui County, told the press last October that cane burning may be connected to respiratory and eye problems for those who live downwind of the fires, particularly in Kihei and Maalaea.

The study is hitting a roadblock because hospitals and clinics are reluctant to disclose patient records. Nonetheless, opponents of the cane fires are confident that the study will confirm what they knew all along. And maybe, just maybe, it will prompt the state to intervene and finally ban the burn.

Then there are the defenders. HC&S is quick to point out that there is no scientific proof that the fires are bad for the air and people. Its website states that multiple studies conducted by its own company, as well as by state and federal governments and the University of Hawaii, found no evidence that the burning “causes chronic respiratory conditions or other serious health problems.”

On top of that, the company makes an economic and cultural argument. HC&S may be part of a dying industry in Hawaii, but it still employs around 800 people. Those are still good union jobs keeping working people employed and satisfied with living wages. The union backs them too.

Last year, more than 200 people rallied to support the company and the union. They even openly defended the burning. This paper caught a particularly troubling handwritten sign: “DON’T MOVE HERE & CHANGE EVERYTHING/NO TAKE OUR JOBS.”

Not all cane fire opponents were born elsewhere. And even if they were, so what? Locals, tourists and newcomers all have lungs, eyes and nostrils. The smoke and ash make no distinction.

This summer we’ve also seen a rash of unscheduled burning of the cane fields flare up. Is it arson? The police think so. Eco-terrorism? The ultimate form of activism? No one’s sure.

One thing is certain. While the police investigate and while the state forges on with its study, the debate – like the fires themselves – rages on.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Ilima Loomis’ “Neighbors.”