Last week, long-time activist and HAPA Board Member Walter Ritte, Jr published an OpEd piece in the Honolulu Star Advertiser that explores the legacy of corporate control in Hawaiʻi and how that legacy continues to block access to land, sovereignty and food security. With several bills being heard at the State Capitol this week that would require more public lands be made available for local food production (including SB593 and SB510) Uncle Walterʻs words bear reprinting below:

On opening day of the state Legislature last month, an unusually diverse coalition of Hawaiians, environmentalists and public health advocates gathered to send a message to those inside the state Capitol: "This is the People's Hale (house), not the Corporations' Hale."

We are all starting to recognize what the Hawaiian community has been struggling with for over a century: the continuing legacy of corporate control and access to land, water and government in Hawaii.

In the 1800s and 1900s, a political and economic elite of former missionary families descended into the "Big Five" sugarcane corporations, consolidating land ownership and control over banking and shipping. Hawaiians were alienated from our lands and our means of production and subsistence.

In 1893 these corporate forces orchestrated the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in order to get around U.S. sugar tariff restrictions and remake a "democracy" under occupation of the U.S.

Today, these same large private landowners are now locking up the former plantation lands into long leases with multinational chemical+GMO research operations. What is now unacceptable, is that the state of Hawaii is leasing thousands of acres of crown lands to these corporations through the Agribusiness Development Corporation (ADC).

The ADC is a "public corporation" set up within the Department of Agriculture (Hawaii Revised Statutes, Chapter 163D). According to the ADC website, it was created to help "transition Hawaii's agriculture industry … to one composed of a diversity of different crops." But the vast majority of the 20,000+ acres that the ADC manages is leased out to the same multinational chemical+GMO corporate research operations. Most of these lands are crown lands, which are supposed to be held in trust and used for public purposes.

It's the same old story with new corporate players.

It's time for a pono (righteous) story to take root in Hawaii, a story that acknowledges this history of corporate control, Hawaiian land claims and story that begins to move toward reclaiming public lands for the public good.

The newly introduced Senate Bill 593 can be a small step for this new beginning, at least on the state/crown lands. SB593 requires the ADC to:

  • Make its primary mission "increasing agriculture and local food production",

  • Establish a sustainable agriculture and local food production plan, and

  • Lease 50% of its land to operations that support increasing agriculture and local food production.

While 50% in sustainable agriculture and local food production is not enough, it is a strong start on the path toward 100% food sovereignty. We know that local food production is not only important for our food security, but it's important to our economy as well.

According to the state Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism's "Increased Food Security and Food Self-Sufficiency Strategy":

About 85-90 percent of Hawaii's food is imported, which makes it vulnerable to natural disasters. … Replacing just 10 percent of the food Hawaii imports would amount to approximately $313 million dollars, which would remain in the state.

Yet, there are many stories of young farmers with solid business plans approaching the ADC, only to be told, "These lands are locked up in 20-year leases" or "We only lease thousands of acres at a time."

It will not be simple to change the structures of corporate land control in Hawaii, and it will not happen overnight. Hawaiians still claim right to the crown lands, and this is a process that needs to be honored. But for now, we can at least stop the desecration of these lands by the pesticide-intensive research operations of multibillion-dollar chemical corporations.

It will take all of us — Hawaiians, environmentalists, public health activists, elected officials — working together to begin to address these historic and structural legacies of corporate control in Hawaii.

For more background on the ADC and SB593, see HAPA's blog post on the subject.

Walter Ritte Jr. is a Hunter and Hawaiian activist working on the restoration of traditional fishponds and Aina based educational programs with Kamehameha Schools. Ritte participated in the 1978 Hawaiʻi State Constitutional Convention, was one of the first elected trustees to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, and currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Hawai‘i Alliance for Progressive Action (HAPA). Ritte is married with six children, twelve grand children, two great grand children and resides on Molokaʻi.