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Kalo At Ka Papa Lo‘i ‘o Kānewai.

The health of the land is the health of the people: A visit to Ka Papa Lo‘i ‘o Kānewai

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For our final Perspectives Trip of 2023, we ventured to the ahupua‘a of Waikīkī to visit Ka Papa Lo‘i ‘o Kānewai, a lo‘i (in this case, a terraced kalo or taro paddy) and garden quietly located at the edges of UH Mānoa. There, we had the privilege of revisiting an ancient truth that remains resonant in our modern times: the fact that public health, our health, is fundamentally dependent on the health of the lands on which we live.[1]

A Transformative Morning

Our host, Ryse Akiu, teaches us the different parts of the kalo.
Our host, Ryse Akiu, teaches us the different parts of the plant.

We started the day as 12 strangers, standing hand-in-hand to introduce ourselves to one another, to the ‘āina, and to all that shared that unique space with us. Under the shade of a hale wa‘a, our host for the day, Ryse Akiu, shared with us mo‘olelo on everything from the origins of the Kānewai stream that gives the lo‘i life to the complicated history of Waikīkī and the Ala Wai Channel towards which the stream ultimately flows.[2] Walking carefully along its waters, we sat at the very spot where, about 40 years prior, a group of students realized what they had on their campus was more than a mere dumping ground for old refrigerators. What they’d stumbled upon was the ancient infrastructure for a limitless source of wisdom to be recognized, nurtured, and protected.

The kalo we worked with that day were all native Hawaiian varieties: Uahiapele named for its smoky appearance, ‘Elepaio Hā Uliuli for its resemblance to the speckled bird, ‘Ula‘ula Poni for its striking purple features, among many others.

Before getting into the lo‘i, Ryse Akiu explained how, in exchange for a consistent and profitable product, only a few of the once hundreds of Hawaiian kalo varieties are grown for the mass market today. Many trade-offs come from this reality, a crucial one being the loss of agricultural biodiversity. This loss introduces the risk of industry collapses similar to what is happening now to the Cavendish banana, as well as its long-forgotten predecessor, the Gros Michel banana.[3] Dedicated to asserting space for those native varieties, Ka Papa Lo‘i ‘o Kānewai prioritizes their cultivation, contributing to our ability to sustain kalo for generations to come.

As we bent over to repair the cracked and cracking mounds around the growing kalo, we felt the squish of the mud, the sharpness of gravel pressing into our soles, and the rustle of kalo dancing in the wind. As we stomped through an empty lo‘i to enrich the mud with fallen leaves, we saw firsthand the impact we had when working together versus apart. As we gingerly stepped upon the rocky bottom of the ‘auwai, we came to know a taste of just how hard the ancestors worked and just how far we’d come from the strangers we were to the hui we’d become.

Ending our time together, Ryse Akiu encouraged us to take stock and look at how the site had transformed, to see how happy the kalo stood with fresh mounds, to hear how much louder the water flowed through the site, and to feel how much we too were transformed by our time at Kānewai.

Mālama ‘Āina, Wherever We Are

While first-hand experiences are critical to receiving all that these places have to offer, what’s truly important to know is that the responsibility and privilege to listen to, care for, and love the land applies to anyone, anywhere in the world. Whether we live or work on another island or another continent altogether, whether we live in urban jungles or places where there are no paved roads, all people have an intimate relationship with the lands on which they live and depend on, whether they recognize it or not.

In short, mālama ‘āina doesn’t just apply when visiting a lo‘i or similar spaces dedicated to learning about it. It doesn’t just apply to Kanaka Maoli, either. It applies everywhere to everyone as we individually and collectively work to nurture the lands that we rely on. Or, as the late Dr. Noa Emmett Aluli said, “Ola ka ʻāina, ola ke kānaka, ola ka lāhui,” or “The health of the land is the health of the people is the health of the nation.”

We hope you join us for our future Perspectives on Community Health Trips, where we visit organizations across the islands working to realize public health here in Hawai‘i. Through these visits, we create opportunities to network, learn, exchange ideas, and accelerate familiarity and trust between individuals and organizations in hopes that we can work more effectively toward common goals. Learn more at hiphi.org/perspectives.

Interested in seeing for yourself what you can learn at Ka Papa Lo‘i ‘o Kānewai? Join them and build pilina during the first Saturday of every month for their community work days! More details and other opportunities can be found here on their website.


[1] “The health of the land is the health of the people is the health of the nation” “Ola ka ʻāina, ola ke kānaka, ola ka lāhui” – Noa Emmett Aluli Source

[2] Waikīkī : a history of forgetting & remembering by Andrea Feeser . A well-written book detailing the complicated history and mo‘olelo of the ahupua‘a of Waikīkī (can be found in the Hawai‘i State Library system)

Kiara Louise D. Bacasen

Kiara Louise D. Bacasen

Kūpuna Collective Special Project Coordinator VISTA
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