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Native Hawaiians look to traditional knowledge, practice to inform climate change solutions

Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Native Hawaiian communities across the island chain are looking to traditional knowledge to inform climate change solutions. This can start with a simple Hawaiian cultural practice known as “kilo” – meaning to observe.

Hawaiian saltmaker Malia Nobrega-Olivera began to notice the impacts of climate change on her family’s salt ponds in Hanapēpē in an area known as Pūʻolo seven years ago. Heavy rain events in the summer, waves coming over the sand dunes – it led to years of no production of salt or paʻakai.

"And being a kilo or observer here at Pūʻolo, I’ve been able to really try to hone in on what is causing the flooding in our paʻakai area?" Nobrega-Olivera said. "Why is this happening? When is this happening? What can we do to mitigate it? Is there anything that we can do?"

Some of her kilo involved taking photos on a regular basis and counting the number of vehicles driving on the sand dunes. This data prompted the county to close the area to traffic and allow the restoration of this cultural site. She says the key to practicing kilo is to be consistent.

"(Kilo) is a verb that really gets you outside and in action and being an observer in your ʻāina (land) — wherever you may be," Nobrega-Olivera told HPR. "Being an observer on a consistent basis so that you can then determine for yourself and find solutions."

Native Hawaiian attorney and Molokaʻi native Malia Akutagawa says kupuna and community members on her island have observed forests being overrun by invasive axis deer in recent years. She had her students use traditional knowledge of place names to plan reforestation.

"They did this process of papakū makawalu where they break down the name and that gives you clues as to what used to grow there," Akutagawa said. "And so that can help us in our planning of what we might want to grow there."

Akutagawa says it's an exciting time for Hawaiians because the rest of the world is looking for climate change solutions, and she believes those solutions rest in the knowledge of her kupuna.

Akutagawa and Nobrega-Olivera shared their insights on a online forum called on Indigenous Practices to Address the Climate Crisis hosted by the Kauaʻi Climate Action Coalition.

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at khiraishi@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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