A Native Hawaiian Digs into Her Roots to Grow Food, Knowledge, and Hope

Inspired by an ancient system of natural resource management, Kukui Maunakea-Forth works with her community to turn Oʻahu youth into farmers—and scholars.

Aerial view of MAʻO Organic Farms in Lualualei Valley on Oʻahu, HI

Credit: Courtesy of MAʻO Organic Farms

To fully grasp the idea behind MAʻO Organic Farms on Oʻahu, Hawaiʻi, founded 20 years ago by Kukui Maunakea-Forth and her husband, Gary Maunakea-Forth, it helps to have an understanding of the concept of ahupuaʻa. Many centuries before colonization and industrialization took over the Pacific archipelago, Native Hawaiians developed a natural resource management system that prioritized conservation, collective responsibility, and shared bounty. In the absence of private property, ahupuaʻa organized the geography of the islands by following the natural flow of water, from the highest unpopulated altitudes to the sea.

So important is water to ahupuaʻa that the Hawaiian word for water, wai, becomes the word for wealth simply when repeated: waiwai. “In an ahupuaʻa system,” Kukui Maunakea-Forth explains, “the forests draw the rain and the wai accumulates in the wao akua—the place of the gods—at the tops of the mountains, where native flora and fauna thrive untouched by people. The wai then recharges aquifers, or runs into the kahawai [streams], where it will be carried through the wao kanaka, or the place of people, to be used for drinking and the cultivation of crops.”

Unlike modern industrialized farming practices, which usually include heavy doses of pesticides and fertilizer, this ancient Hawaiʻian system doesn’t try to aggressively bend nature to its will. Maunakea-Forth’s ancestors designed their irrigation methods with sustainability in mind. “An ʻauwai [ditch] was often built to divert the precious wai to feed loʻi kalo,” or fields of taro, which is the staple crop of the Hawaiian people and the main ingredient in poi,” she says. “Then the water would continue through the ʻauwai, cleaned in the process, to be returned to the kahawai before eventually reaching the muliwai [estuary], where—in the mix of freshwater and saltwater—limu [seaweed], small crustaceans, and baby fish would be nourished before returning to the ocean.”

Today, MAʻO Organic Farms lies just outside the town of Waiʻanae, on Oʻahu’s western coast. The town is a little more than 30 miles from the gleaming hotels and tourist-filled beaches of Waikiki, but in many respects, it’s a world away. The poverty rate in this community of roughly 14,000 in 2019 was 24.4 percent—more than two and a half times the poverty rate for the entire state and more than twice that of the United States as a whole. Though the island’s western coast is leeward from Honolulu, the capital city’s vibrant economic winds never seemed to drift over to Waiʻanae, where homelessness, alcohol and drug addiction, food insecurity, and health disparities have long made their mark on the people who live there.

But Waiʻanae is also distinct in other ways. The Lualualei Valley in which it sits features a nutrient-rich, highly fertile soil known as Lualualei Vertisol that is ideal for growing crops. Waiʻanae is also home to one of the highest concentrations of Native Hawaiians, or Kanaka Maoli, in the state, making it a unique repository of Indigenous knowledge and traditions that have managed to survive centuries of cultural erasure, economic exploitation, and environmental degradation at the hands of colonizers and corporations alike.

Kukui Maunakea-Forth, cofounder and executive director of MA’O Organic Farms
Credit: Photo courtesy of MA’O Organic Farms

Maunakea-Forth, a Native Hawaiian raised in the neighboring town of Nānākuli, has spent the last 20 years addressing the interconnections between food, poverty, health, and education. In 2001, she and her New Zealand–born husband started a small, sustainably run farm on five acres leased to them by a local church. From its conception, they envisioned MAʻO as a robust engine of community development. The couple crafted a nonprofit social enterprise business model that draws upon local youth—many of whom are considered at-risk—for its labor force. In addition to a monthly stipend, the farm helps pay the tuition costs of its interns at a pair of nearby community colleges. So far, more than 400 of their workers have come through the program. Over the last two decades, MAʻO has become a powerful incubator for local education and self-improvement, all while providing fresh, organic vegetables to the Waiʻanae community—as well as dozens of grocers and restaurateurs who long for locally grown produce in a state that imports about 85 percent of its food.

Today, the couple’s once-tiny plot stands at more than 280 acres, which in 2020 yielded an astounding 262,000 pounds of organically grown salad greens, cooking greens, root vegetables, herbs, and seasonal fruit. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the farm was able to increase its yield from the prior year by 43 percent—and its role as a dependable source of healthful food for the community was never more apparent.

MAʻO Organic Farms is located in Lualualei Valley, the largest coastal valley on Oahu's western side, and is home to abundant sunshine, the unique Lualualei Vertisol soil, and a rich tradition of food production.
Credit: Courtesy Ma'o Organic Farms

Inspired by ahupuaʻa, MAʻO has embraced natural agriculture methods, such as growing cover crops and practicing crop rotation, which build resiliency and encourage biodiversity in the soil. But the ahupuaʻa system is more than a way of thinking about the mechanics of farming: It’s also a model for the farm’s social enterprise. “For MAʻO, our greatest resources are our children, our youth,” says Maunakea-Forth. “They are the waiwai of our families and communities.” As both an organic farm and a youth leadership program, she explains, “the ahupuaʻa processes of holistic ecological health and well-being are embedded in everything we do. Because ultimately, we’re charged to ensure the health and the well-being of ʻāina,” a word that she says best translates to “that which feeds.” Just like the wai, “the youth are brought to MAʻO to be nourished, while they nourish the soil in which we grow our crops and cultivate pono—or righteous—food for our communities.”

Credit: MAʻO organizes its educational and entrepreneurial programs in harmony with the ʻauwai principle. Like the water in an ʻauwai, MAʻO interns enrich the edu-preneurial space of the farm while they are enriched by that same environment through a long-term mutual commitment. Courtesy of MAʻO Organic Farms

Interns at MAʻO who attend the University of Hawaiʻis Leeward Community College can take classes toward a certificate in Community Food Security, based on a curriculum codesigned by the Maunakea-Forths and their colleagues. In it, ancient methodologies like the ahupuaʻa are studied in contrast to the islands’ modern and much more troubled agricultural history, one marked by corporate colonialism. Around the turn of the 20th century, industrial sugar and pineapple companies came to Hawaiʻi, exploited its natural resources, and then began abandoning the state a hundred years later once cheaper land and labor became available in other countries. More recently, much of the land once owned by companies such as Dole has been bought by agribusiness giants like Monsanto, which uses it to grow genetically modified seed corn.

Maunakea-Forth wants her interns, some of whom go on to work full-time at MAʻO as comanagers, to absorb and understand this bit of modern history and its effect on their present. But even more, she says, she wants them to absorb and understand the history that predates it by centuries, and to feel connected to the ancient methods and traditions that sustained Hawaiʻi before and—if she has any say in the matter—that will do so again.

The Maunakea-Forths and their team of young farmers are bringing that day closer and illustrating along the way how regenerative agricultural practices can heal people as well as soil and ecosystems. “When we start the day in a circle chanting ʻE Hō Mai,” she says (referring to an ancient chant asking the gods for knowledge both seen and unseen), “at an organic farm peopled by Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders—in one of the most socioeconomically challenged communities in Hawaiʻi—we’re making a statement of self-determination: to love and heal our land, and to love and feed our community.”

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