The recent battle over GMO legislation made clear that swiftly growing friction has “nowhere to hide” on intimate Kauai
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Dec 15, 2013
LAST UPDATED: 11:58 a.m. HST, Feb 12, 2014
The pitched battle over the so-called anti-GMO bill on Kauai has simmered down for now, but the clash left the island bloodied, bruised and a little wobbly after laying bare a festering schism.
"It's a civil war, I gotta tell you," said Jerry Ornellas, president of the Kaua'i County Farm Bureau. "It's family against family. I've never seen anything like it. The community is deeply divided."
An apparent widening gulf between what some have described
as politically active newcomers, or malihini, and longtime local residents, or kamaaina, has made for uncomfortable times for some on the Garden Island.
Observers say for months the friction dominated conversations and appeared in letters to the editor, online comments and testimony -- and may have manifested into some physical altercations.
"It's there," said Kauai County Planning Director Michael Dahilig of the tension. "What's augmented the ferocity of it is the small population here. There's nowhere to hide."
Famous for its white-sand beaches, verdant valleys and stretches of rugged coastline, the mostly rural island is home to just under 70,000 residents. But the population is expected to climb to nearly 85,300 by 2035, according to Kauai County projections. From 1990 to 2011, the county's population grew by 31 percent -- more than double Oahu's 15 percent growth during that period.
Maui and Hawaii island have experienced similar population growth and, perhaps not so coincidentally, are confronting some of the same divisions over genetically modified organisms and pesticide use as increasing urbanization clashes with the islands' agricultural legacy.
The drama tied to Kauai's Bill 2491 began in early summer when county Councilmen Gary Hooser and Tim Bynum introduced the measure as a means to curb genetically modified crops and pesticide use by the island's largest agricultural concerns, including four biotechnology seed companies and Kauai Coffee.
It ended -- at least for now -- last month amid death threats and heightened security as the bill was passed into county law.
Along the way there was aggressive, in-your-face political campaigning, tense confrontations and marathon public hearings featuring sign-waving, shouting and tearful testimony. Bill supporters linked the activities of the seed companies to serious health problems while opponents gravely warned that the bill's proposed restrictions would force the industry, along with hundreds of jobs, off the island.
Battle lines were organized along T-shirt colors, with bill backers wearing red and opponents blue. In early September, an estimated 1,500 to 4,000 people marched through the streets of Lihue to show support for the bill.
One side was emboldened by a robust social media network and reinforced by off-island and mainland anti-GMO groups, while the other side was sustained by the power of global corporations Syngenta, DuPont Pioneer, BASF and Dow AgroSciences.
By the time the bill was approved on first reading Oct. 16, some of its most controversial sections had been dropped during the legislative process. But it still required buffer zones, disclosures pertaining to pesticide use and farming of GMO crops, and a county study on the industry's environmental and health impacts.
Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. faced an angry mob after he announced his veto two weeks later, pointing to a legal opinion that the law wouldn't stand up in court. The next day police disclosed Carvalho had been threatened, prompting metal-detector screening and greater police presence at Kauai's Historic County Building.
And just when it appeared the bill was going down in flames, the council majority pulled off a shrewd move to win the day. One vote shy of overriding the veto, the majority postponed action until a council vacancy could be filled with a new member, Mason Chock, who was sympathetic to the cause. Victory came on Nov. 16.
Forbes science writer Jon Entwine summed it up in melodramatic fashion: "The broken process has driven a massive wedge into the heart of this once peaceful island community. This 11th hour maneuver has only deepened the distrust and dissension."
WHAT HAD STARTED as a debate over questions of health and environment intensified as passions tore at the social fabric of the island. Divisions seemed to emerge between young and old, newcomer and longtime resident, Caucasians and locals.
"I think there's clearly a significant proportion of the community flexing its muscle on issues that don't represent the traditional majority of the island," said Jan TenBruggencate, a longtime Kauai-based journalist and elected member of the Kaua'i Island Utility Cooperative board.
Observers say the divide was evident in 2007 when protesters blocked the Hawaii Superferry from docking at Nawiliwili Harbor and helped lead to its downfall. It continued last year with a rowdy demonstration that may have contributed to the repeal of the state's Public Land Development Corp.
TenBruggencate was among those who watched the GMO drama unfold with more than its share of over-the-top exaggerations and aggressive and disrespectful behavior.
On one side, he said, there were people calling those in the pro-Bill 2491 group "North Shore crazies" and "hippies," while folks on the other side called the opposition "uneducated" and incapable of recognizing the threats they face.
"There is plenty of demagoguery on both sides," he said.
Some fear that even recent incidents of violence were related to the friction. In June, a group of men attacked some campers at Polihale Beach in West Kauai in what some described as a conflict between races and/or possibly between those identified as "west siders" versus North Shore residents.
In August, a 26-year-old Caucasian male was assaulted by a local man in an attack that was originally characterized by the victim as a hate crime.
Whether these incidents have any direct tie to Bill 2491 is unknown, but they may be indicative of deepening divisions.
In the heat of the battle over the bill, a lot of locals said they felt like they were under attack.
At a council hearing held in August, Tyleen Medeiros, a seed company employee, said: "They act like we have no morals, like we don't care about the people on the island. I have four kids. I don't care how much the company pays me. I would never put them in danger, or anybody else's kids for that matter.
"This is our island, too. We work on the west side. We live there. We raise our kids there. We send them to the schools. We are not forced to work for the seed industry."
Some railed against the newcomers.
"Who are you to speak for me?" Jason Manawai wrote in a Nov. 13 letter to the Garden Island newspaper. "No one speaks for the majority of those who live on this island, especially when you look into the audience at the public hearings and see a sea of pink faces, faces that have no roots here and yet think they know better than me and have a right to come here and tell me what to do."
But Hooser, the chief proponent of Bill 2491, said if people saw a lot of Caucasians and assumed they were fresh from the mainland, they were probably wrong. A lot of the anti-GMO supporters, he said, were the sons and daughters of his island contemporaries. Hooser landed in Hawaii in 1970.
Hooser fingered the biotech companies as largely responsible for dividing the community by painting the bill as threat to on-island jobs.
"They looked at it as a potential strategy, which is ironic because they are the newcomers," he said.
Hooser said he doesn't blame the seed company employees for lashing out. "Naturally, people are going to be concerned about their jobs when their bosses tell them they're going to close up."
With the ag companies refusing to tell the community about what pesticides they're spraying, it caused even more divisiveness, he said.
Throughout the battle, agribusiness representatives maintained that any lack of transparency is due to competition in an industry that's tight-lipped about trade secrets. Also, they asserted that their operations are already carefully monitored by three federal agencies: the Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration.
Even so, bill supporters contended that such regulation is insufficient.
Fern Rosenstiel, one of the leaders of the anti-GMO group 'Ohana O Kaua'i, conceded that tempers sometimes got out of control, which prompted the group's website to caution supporters to use restraint.
"People are living with this every day," she said, explaining the testy behavior. "When people are worried, people get desperate. And when people get desperate, they do stupid things."
David Nekomoto, a retired Navy commander from Lawai, said a large majority chose to remain silent rather than speak up and face the wrath of activists.
"It's never good to see the community divided," he said.
Journalist Joan Conrow, author of the Kauai Eclectic blog, said a lot of residents were put off by the rowdy behavior.
Kauai has a long history of activism, with protest marches going back to at least the '70s, she said. This time, she said, it was mean-spirited and more impolite than it needed to be.
"A lot of people were uncomfortable getting involved because of the confrontation."
At least one business was targeted by activists -- a flower farmer and exporter of tropical flowers, Conrow said. After discoverying the business was identified as a user of a restricted-use pesticide, there were angry remarks and calls for a boycott posted on the Internet.
Social media played a big role, allowing widespread dissemination of sometimes distorted information.
"Both sides used a lot of fear-mongering and misrepresentation," she said.
Conrow said watching the histrionics of the past few months was sad.
"It's an issue I'm interested in and have long been concerned about. But there was so much dishonesty and negativity in the campaign, it just turned me off. It made me think: Is this how it's going to be on Kauai from now on? Where everyone is at each other's throat?"
As for the movement's political power, Conrow's not sure it will translate into election success.
"The political machine is well entrenched on Kauai. It's going to take more than this to unseat it or even to wiggle in."
Conrow dismissed the notion that race was at the center of the conflict.
"It's not that simple," she said. "A lot of locals were for Bill 2491. I don't really think it's a racial thing."
Carvalho, Kauai's top elected official for the last five years, said he is optimistic that the political discord will lack any lasting social consequence.
"Over the years there have been issues that have created momentary division in our community, but we always seem to find a way to come together as an island ohana in the long run," the mayor said in a statement. "Hopefully we can learn from this experience and face tough issues in a responsible and respectful way in the future."