The Burning Effects of Colonization

August 28, 2023

When the first American businessman built a plantation in Hawaii in 1835, seeds were sown. Not just the literal seeds of cash crops, but also the seeds of devastation which have blossomed into the unimaginable tragedy we saw in Maui this month.

How can that be? It starts with the way the Hawaiian landscape began to change under a plantation economy. Native Hawai’ians had grown sugar cane for generations, but the plantation model was different. Instead of growing several varieties spread across land that also hosted many other plants, a monoculture approach was applied. One single crop planted across acres and acres, all in the pursuit of the most financial return possible. Instead of feeding the people of the land, the crops were processed and shipped far and wide, making very rich men out of the sugar barons. The land division act of 1848 officially displaced indigenous people from their lands, paving the way for more plantations.

Monoculture growing may be profitable for business owners, but it can spell death for an ecosystem, making it more vulnerable to disasters like fires. Lack of diversity in plants leaches nutrients out of the soil, encouraging the growth of invasive, non-native grasses which quickly dry out and become a fire hazard.

The European colonial approach to land and its indigenous inhabitants has far-reaching effects for people, land, animals and plants. Disconnection from natural ways of life results in imbalance, leading to impacts that were never dreamt of.

Colonialism and consumer capitalism are also widely thought by scientists to be drivers of climate change, which also contributed to the tinderbox conditions that made the fires so devastating. Hotter temperatures, less cloud cover and less precipitation all created a situation where fires spread faster than anyone could contain them, resulting in the staggering loss we’ve seen in Maui. As Hawaii rebuilds, my hope is that the process is not taken over by the same types of interests that caused these conditions for its lands and people. My hope is that the indigenous people of Hawaii will be at the forefront of the visions for rebuilding. That the older ways of stewardship and sustaining each other begin to emerge again, teaching us how to live in the world we’re left with.

Rochelle Hazard, Director of Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access