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After Wildfires, Native Hawaiian Farmers Resist Attempt To Shift Blame

Above Photo: Hawaii wildfires.

The ultra-right and the government are behind a narrative that implies that Indigenous sovereignty and water rights are to blame for the delay in dousing the Maui wildfires.

Indigenous Hawaiians are resisting this campaign and have put forward a charter of demands

Fires that began on August 8 have devastated the landscape of Maui, Hawaii, taking the lives of at least 115 people and leaving thousands displaced and thousands of residences burned to the ground. Native Hawaiians, who are already the most impoverished populations in Hawaii and are falling victim to rapid gentrification, are expected to be hit the hardest by the long and short-term effects of the fires. To add insult to injury, a group of Native Hawaiian farmers are witnessing a coordinated attempt by the government and land developers to shift the blame of the fires away from the root causes of colonialism, and on to Indigenous water rights.

On August 10, Glenn Tremble, an executive of land developer West Maui Land Co., penned a letter to Kaleo Manuel, a member of the State Commission on Water Resource Management. The letter claimed that the commission had delayed responding on the company’s request to divert more water to its reservoirs to fight the fires. The commission’s chair, Dawn Chang, wrote back to Tremble and said that she would grant the company’s request.

Following the publicization of the letter on mainstream news, Manuel was reassigned to a different division on August 16. The announcement did not say which division he had been reassigned to, only that, “this deployment does not suggest that First Deputy Manuel did anything wrong.”

Native Hawaiian farmers view this reassignment as a slap in the face. Manuel was a strong advocate for the water rights of farmers. Indigenous farmer Charles Palakiko told NBC News that West Maui Land Co. was merely using the fires as a pretext to tap into his stream. But his stream is not even connected to the Lahaina water system, he said. “Kaleo had nothing to do with it,” says Palakiko. “They’re trying to destroy us, and they’re blaming him.”

Manuel has come under fire from conservative elements such as Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk and Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy. The latter went as far as to claim that the alleged water delay was due to the “[Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion] agenda.”

Hawaiian Governor Josh Green seemed to also join in the criticism of Manuel, suggesting that water was withheld to put out the fires. “One thing that people need to understand, especially those from far away, is that there’s been a great deal of water conflict on Maui for many years,” Green said at a news conference last week. “It’s important that we’re honest about this. People have been fighting against the release of water to fight fires. I’ll leave that to you to explore.”

Farmers and activists have rallied behind Manuel. “We need healing and justice for our community and waters, it’s simply a false choice to suggest that water to fight fires is in opposition to water in our streams,” said Kamana Beamer, former Hawaiʻi Water Commissioner. “We need leaders like Kaleo Manuel who understand we can do both.”

Indigenous Hawaiians are organizing in response to Manuel’s reassignment and have put out a list of demands to the Hawaiian government. These demands include a call to  “recenter Lahaina residents in all decisions about Lahaina,” “return Kaleo Manuel to Deputy Director of the water commission,” “reinstate the Water Code suspended by emergency proclamation,” “respect the Maui Komohana Water Management Area designation,” and “reinstate the Sunshine Law to ensure basic transparency in government.” These demands refer to the way that the government is using the fires as a pretext to disregard Indigenous water rights.

Hawaiian farmers and environmental activists claim that the diversion of water would not have helped fight the fire. Maui resident Tiare Lawrence has claimed that the water reservoirs that Tremble was asking to divert were not connected to fire hydrants and therefore the fire department would not have been able to utilize this water in any case. West Maui Land Co.’s reservoirs are only accessible by helicopter, say Indigenous Hawaiians, which were not flying due hurricane-force winds.

Hawaiians also point to the legacy of colonialism as the true culprit behind the arid lands that created a tinderbox for wildfires. Some point to the very same land developers such as West Maui Land Co. as responsible for diverting water from Lahaina for years.

“As a Lahaina resident, please hear me when I tell you: Lahaina is a wetland,” said Kekai Keahi, a Lahaina resident and taro farmer. “Any restoration of Lahaina town must start with the restoration of our streams because they are the lifeblood of our community.”

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