“Seeing the land transform from being fallow and overrun with invasive species to this productive taro cultivation is amazing and inspiring.”
Melissa Iwamoto, former planner with the Hawaii Coastal Zone Management Program
Decades ago, hundreds of acres of wetlands and adjacent uplands on the windward side of Oahu in Hawaii held plentiful natural fisheries and traditional Hawaiian crops, but changes in agriculture and factors such as runoff, invasive species, and sedimentation led to the area’s ecological decline. Now a community project that is supported by coastal resource managers is restoring more than 400 acres, strengthening the community’s traditional agricultural economy and improving nearshore water quality.
In addition, the restoration project is taking into consideration the anticipated impacts of climate change, such as sea level rise and more intense storms.
“This project shows that the vision of a community—in this case to bring the ecosystem back to being productive and healthy—is something we can support by providing funding and helping to build capacity,” says Leo Asuncion, planning program manager for Hawaii’s Coastal Zone Management Program.
The agency provided start-up funding and assistance to the Heeia Wetlands Restoration Project, which over time will restore natural wetland flows, eradicate invasive species, cultivate sustainable medicinal and food plants such as taro and breadfruit, decrease sediment at the ocean shoreline, and educate the community on traditional Hawaiian agricultural knowledge.
The project is not only a potential model for other communities in the state, but is also being looked at by managers in other islands who are searching for ideas on how to restore wetland ecology and return to sustainable agricultural practices.
At one time, a part of the Heeia wetlands known as Hoi featured abundant taro crops and naturally healthy fish ponds. But agricultural changes that began in the mid-1800s—cattle grazing and the planting of rice, sugarcane, and pineapple—took a heavier toll on the area’s ecology. Increased runoff, invasive species, and sedimentation occurred, worsened by heavier rainfall in recent decades.
Community stakeholders concerned about these changes consulted extensively with local kupuna (elders) and the broader community to gain a vision for restoring the wetland. Then they approached the Hawaii Coastal Program with a funding proposal (see “Restoration Partners”). The funding award, provided through a cooperative agreement between the coastal program and NOAA, enabled the community and its partners to complete a 2010-2015 strategic restoration plan for Hoi.
In the two years since the restoration began, the Hoi community is already starting to see its first “fruits.” The clearing and cultivation work performed by volunteers is now yielding taro, a starchy tuber and traditional foodstuff that can be baked, boiled, or pounded into poi, a venerated Hawaiian dish. The harvest is being sold from a portable structure at present. Future plans include establishing a permanent community center and commercial kitchen, as well as re-establishing a poi mill on the site of the former mill.
The community’s proposal for the wetlands restoration project “rose to the top,” according to Asuncion, because it aligned so well with the state’s Ocean Resources Management Plan. That plan emphasizes a collaborative, place-based management approach to natural and cultural resource management, favors community stewardship, and recognizes the connection between land and sea.
Melissa Iwamoto, an outreach and program coordinator for the Pacific Islands Ocean Observing System, was lead planner for the Hawaii Coastal Program’s Community-Based Resource Management project when the Heeia project broke ground. She says, “Seeing the land transform from being fallow and overrun with invasive species to this productive taro cultivation is amazing and inspiring.”
The area being restored is very close to the ocean shoreline—roughly the distance of a football field. The restoration partners are very interested in seeing how the project might impact the watershed, ocean resources, and the ocean shoreline. Representatives from other islands are looking at this project with interest as well, and it’s helping them generate similar project ideas.
The varieties of taro chosen for cultivation are the most salt-tolerant, an important factor as sea level rise changes wetland salinity. Also, the taro fields are expected to retain extra water to recharge the aquifer and to lessen sediment runoff. The reduced runoff will benefit adjacent coral reefs.
Spending Time Up Front
While not always easy, Asuncion says, community-proposed projects are valuable. The first step in supporting a community’s restoration project is to “look for the community vision. In every community, there are people who can give you the historical and cultural background you need to help them articulate their vision and build capacity.”
A series of 10 capacity-building workshops were critical in building on that vision, helping organizations and community members navigate through government reporting requirements and learn how to seek extra funds and in-kind donations. “Tasks coastal managers are familiar with, like writing applications for funding, can be very laborious for community members who have never done them before. But if you are patient and spend the necessary time, it will be worth all your effort in the end.”
In 2010, Kakoo Oiwi acquired a 38-year lease on the property from the Hawaii Community Development Authority, guaranteeing that this project will continue to grow over decades. In addition, dozens of partners and volunteers from the community, regulatory agencies, and the research community have joined the effort, adding to both restoration funding and in-kind donations.
The major partners of the Heeia Wetlands Restoration Project are the Hawaii Coastal Zone Management Program, Hawaii Community Development Authority, Koolaupoko Hawaiian Civic Club, The Nature Conservancy, and the community-based nonprofit organization Kakoo Oiwi.