The ahupua‘a of Hawai‘i were established in ancient times to organize the distribution of resources and people. An ahupua‘a land division traditionally ran from the mountains to the near-shore reef, and optimally included land and ocean resources that would sustain the population living within the ahupua‘a. Ahupua‘a boundaries often followed watershed lines, providing each community with fresh water, fertile land, abundant marine life and forest resources. Working in concert with the other ahupua‘a within a moku (district), Hawaiians created a community-based system of self-sustaining resource management.
Currently, the use of ahupua‘a management principles have come to the forefront of all sustainability discussions in Hawai‘i. Traditional Hawaiian ways of knowing, interacting with, and relating to the environment reflect a sustainable resource management ethic. The ahupua‘a system recognizes the connection between the health of the mountains, the ocean and the community; and the vital role that fresh water plays in linking it all together. Reflecting the value of water in Hawaiian culture, the word for fresh water is “wai,” and the word for wealth is “waiwai.”
Principles of ahupua‘a management enabled Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) to sustain large and healthy populations without compromising ecosystem integrity. In fact, traditional agriculture and resource management methods actually increased biodiversity and key natural resources. Hawaiians developed agroforestry systems that minimized soil erosion, facilitated the emergence of water springs, and maintained high species diversity. Not only is biodiversity essential to nutrient cycling and ecosystem resilience, but it also provided Hawaiians with the resources to live in abundance and comfort.
The establishment of a Hawai‘i-wide system of marking these traditional ahupua‘a boundaries is widely seen as a very significant step towards educating the public about the ahupua‘a system and how the ancient principles of ahupua‘a management can inform sustainability initiatives today.
Currently, communities throughout Hawaiʻi are taking up ahupuaʻa boundary marker projects, and these projects have been significant and meaningful ways to increase the visibility of Maoli culture. The first major project was implemented by Koʻolaupoko Hawaiian Civic Club on Oʻahu, one of partners in our project. As stated by one of the kupuna involved in the Oʻahu project, “These markers really make us think about the kuleana that everyone holds to malama (care for) the cultural and natural resources of their ahupua‘a.”
For the Hōnaunau Ola Mau Loa project, we started with the four ahupuaʻa that lie between Hōnaunau and Kealakekua Bay. We hope to continue to expand the ahupuaʻa markers and information throughout a larger area, and look forward to working with other Hawaiʻi Island community groups to achieve an island-wide network of ahupuaʻa markers.