Climate Change, Hawaiian Sovereignty, and the Lahaina Fires: An Interview with Honuʻāina Nichols
Honuʻāina Nichols (they/them/ʻoia) is a queer kānaka maoli, kiaʻi wai (water protector), haʻi ʻōlelo (orator), living on the island of Oʻahu. While completing their undergraduate in Political Science, International Relations and Environmental Policy at UC Santa Barbara, Honu worked as a grassroots organizer for the UCDivestTMT campaign at school, home, and has traveled to Washington DC to advocate on behalf of the sovereignty of their people. They are a NACRP (National Association of Climate Resilience Planners) facilitator, member of the Young Climate Leaders of Color 2023 cohort with the People's Climate Innovation Center, and a Center for Native American Youth 2023 Champion for Change, working to build community power for a climate resilient future in their hometown. They are accountable to their lāhui (nation) across Hawaiʻi but feel their kuleana (responsibility) calls for them to be working at traditional loko iʻa (fishponds). They currently serve as the Climate Education Coordinator at Loko Ea fishpond in the North Shore of Haleʻiwa.
The solution to climate change is principled struggle—together. -Honuʻāina Nichols
The following interview was conducted via phone and email in August 2023, following the Lahaina fires and in support of "In Solidarity with Maui: Taking Action for Wildfire Response, Recovery, and Prevention," a Community Commons Original.
What is important to know about Lahaina? What is missing from the conversation?
Nichols: Lahainaʻs pre-colonial history is particularly important for people to know because it reveals the deeply unnatural roots of this so-called "natural" disaster. Lahaina used to be a wetland. It was the heart and capital of Hawaii before statehood, before we were a territory, before we were illegally annexed.
[The community center that burned] was a living breathing model of sovereignty. It was a place we could be kānaka freely.
Can you tell us more about the pre-colonial roots, and how that contributed to the fires?
Nichols: In the 18th C, sugar barons and European settlers introduced non-native grasses. These species grow rapidly during rainy periods and become "explosive" fuel for wildfires during droughts. Non-native plants now cover 26% of Hawaii.
Streams that once flowed through valleys are diverted for luxury subdivisions, which often occupy plantation-controlled lands. Native families in some areas have no access to county water lines or fire hydrants. This made fighting the wildfires harder in West Maui. For years, Maui residents have been under water restrictions, while hotels and resorts, which are top water users, remain exempt.
Kānaka Maoli have been calling for our water back for years with no action.
What is the water situation like right now?
Nichols: After the fire, water is not safe to drink for families in Lahaina, even if boiled.
And there is an attempted water grab happening, correct?
Nichols: [There are] misleading water stories. Leaders within the State government [are attempting] to blame someone for the destructive Lahaina fires… to persuade the public to start questioning kalo farmersʻ water rights, and pitting Native Hawaiians and community members against each other during their greatest time of need. [These harmful] stories suggest kalo farmersʻ water rights played a role in the Lahaina fire -- the truth is, reservoirs filled with stream-diverted water could not have been used for firefighting because they are not connected to the hydrant system and no helicopters could scoop up the water since they were grounded due high winds.
Can you share more about the relationship between colonialism and climate change, and more specifically, how that impacts Native Hawaiians?
Nichols: Climate and human rights are interconnected. I want to clarify that climate change as a term somewhat decenters the role of American occupation in this crisis. Drought in Maui is very much the result of water diversion and theft. And climate change is very rarely spoken about in the context of imperialism/colonialism, but you could not have the preconditions for climate change—mass industrialization, globalization, commodification of natural resources etc.—without stealing native land and dispossessing native people of their historic role as land stewards (via methods of genocide and forced relocation.)
What do these legacies mean for us today? What do we most need to take away from this conversation?
Nichols: The state is CULPABLE, America is CULPABLE for this disaster. The scale of loss could have entirely been prevented.
The climate crisis is here and is the end-stage expression of colonial capitalism. No one will be safe from the fires and floods and those who are already hit the hardest are the people who have been crushed by this system.
Please support the return of Hawaiian lands to the Kānaka Maoli. It is a sovereign nation that was stolen by the US for a military position. The original land stewards must be supported in reawakening land practices that harmonize with the way of life. Not just in Hawaii but all over the world.
The solution to climate change is principled struggle—together.