Hawaiian Electric Company may be responsible for proximately causing the fire that devastated Lāhainā, as Maui County alleged in a lawsuit late last week, but the stage was set for the inferno by more than a century and a half of plantation agriculture driven by colonial invaders, the Guardian reports.
Lāhainā, once an agriculturally diverse and productive wetland, was reportedly described as the “Venice of the Pacific” by early Europeans. But, “The rise of plantation capital spawned the drying of the west side of Maui,” Kamana Beamer, a historian and former Hawaii water resource management commissioner, told The Guardian. “You can see the link between extractive, unfettered capitalism at the expense of our natural resources and the ecosystem.”
Sugar magnates and other capitalists overthrew the Hawaiian Kingdom’s Queen Liliuokalani in 1893, leading to the U.S. annexation of the archipelago five years later with Sanford Ballard Dole, cousin of Dole Plantation’s founder, sitting as the territory’s first governor. More than a century later, when the last sugar plantations closed in 2016, real estate speculators allowed the land to be overrun by invasive grasses — fuel for wildfires — while developers diverted water to luxury subdivisions, away from Indigenous families living downstream.
Another slap in the face
Now, locals and Native Hawaiians are concerned the affordable housing crisis in and around Lāhainā will become even worse, along with false water scarcity created by water rights acquisition.
“It’s another slap in the face to people in Lahaina who have lost everything,” Lucienne de Naie, an east Maui historian and chair of the Sierra Club Maui group, told The Guardian. “They’re pitting farmers against farmers, Native Hawaiians against Native Hawaiians,” said Hōkūao Pellegrino, a seventh-generation taro farmer in central Maui who leads the stream protection nonprofit Hui o Nā Wai ʻEhā, calling it “disaster capitalism at its finest.” (Colonial plantations: The Guardian; Maui County suit: AP, AP, Democracy Now, Gizmodo, E&E $, The Verge, Washington Post $; Affordable housing: NPR; Climate Signals background: Wildfires)