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Monsanto takes root

The agriculture company is leasing 30 acres on Molokai for its GMO crops, which infuriates some residents

By Rob Perez

LAST UPDATED: 4:33 p.m. HST, Feb 12, 2014

For many Native Hawaiians who oppose the use of genetically modified organisms in Hawaii's farm fields, Monsanto is the enemy.

Some are so disdainful of the multi­national agriculture company that they recently joined marches on several islands to protest Monsanto's presence in Hawaii.

Yet the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, the agency created to help Native Hawaiians, is infuriating some of its beneficiaries by leasing 30 acres of Molokai farmland to the company through a month-to-month revocable permit.

"I'm 100 percent against it," said Jeanette Kahalehoe, a 71-year-old Molokai homesteader who lives across the street from another Monsanto field — not the DHHL property — where dust is kicked up by the tradewinds whenever the land is stripped of crops. "We have been silent inhalers of all that dirt and dust. It becomes a horror thing for us."

The news that Monsanto has been leasing land from DHHL comes in the wake of a Star-Advertiser investigation that exposed mismanagement, lax oversight and selective enforcement in the revocable permit program. The findings were disclosed in a three-day series last week.

The fact that DHHL is leasing land to Monsanto while some Native Hawaiians are protesting the company's presence in the islands reflects what some beneficiaries say is a tone-deaf agency, not in tune with their concerns.

"This just shows the disconnect," said Molokai homesteader and GMO opponent Walter Ritte, who recently asked DHHL to revoke the company's permit for the 30-acre parcel in Palaau. "This is totally unacceptable."

But Darrell Young, DHHL's deputy director, said until GMO crops are outlawed in Hawaii, the department is committed to assisting farming homesteaders in their efforts to be successful.

"DHHL does not see the GMO issue to be a major controversy within our homestead communities," Young said in written responses to Star-Advertiser questions.

"Our homestead communities have GMO and organic farmers alike living and working side by side and hand in hand to support one another's businesses on their homesteads. If and when disputes arise, they work those issues out amongst themselves without waiting or requiring any advice from us. It is what self sufficiency and self determination is all about."

Ray Foster, a Monsanto representative on Molokai, said in a written statement to the Star-Advertiser that the 30 DHHL acres represent only 1 percent of the 2,300 acres the company owns or leases on the island. The DHHL land is used occasionally for seed corn but primarily to grow sweet corn three to four times a year, with that corn donated to Molokai organizations for fundraising, he added.

"We recognize that there is a small segment of the local community that is critical of Monsanto," Foster said. "We strive to always be a good neighbor, and there are many people in the community who support us. There are also many Native Hawaiians who work for the two seed companies that operate here."

The DHHL permit that Monsanto holds dates to 1984. Monsanto was not the original holder, but its name was placed on the permit in April 2007 after an acquisition.

Monsanto also is benefiting from a second DHHL parcel on Molokai.

L&R Farms, a beneficiary-owned business that has a revocable permit for 95 acres there, is under contract with Monsanto to grow seed corn, according to Foster and DHHL documents.

State records list Lynn Decoite as the limited liability company's sole member. Efforts to reach Decoite, who is a member of the state Board of Agriculture, via telephone and email were unsuccessful.

According to DHHL, Decoite is a third-generation farmer who, like other homestead farmers, grows corn for Monsanto. The farmers raise many crops to support their operations, the agency said.

Kahalehoe, the homesteader who lives across Maunaloa Highway from a Monsanto field, said she has to keep her windows closed when the field is plowed or barren and the wind is blowing dirt and dust around.

Her neighbor, she added, has it even worse.

"I'm not really sure Monsanto cares about what's happening," Kahalehoe said.

But Monsanto's Foster said the company takes multiple measures to reduce soil erosion from wind and water runoff, including halting all tilling during excessive winds and incorpor- ating new techniques that reduce the number of passes a tractor makes to prepare a field for planting.

The company also has planted trees and other vegetation to serve as windbreaks, according to Foster.

Because of a prolonged period of severe drought, limited rainfall and windy conditions, dealing with the dust situation has been particularly difficult, he added.

For Molokai homesteader Gayla Haliniak, president of the Kalamaula Homestead Association, the issue isn't so much about dust or GMOs.

The issue is about DHHL leasing trust land, even on a month-to-month basis, to nonbeneficiaries while more than 26,000 beneficiaries are on waiting lists for homestead lots, Haliniak said.

Beneficiaries are those who are at least 50 percent Native Hawaiian.

DHHL officials say land in the revocable permit program mostly lacks infrastructure and is not suitable for homestead use in the near future or at all. By getting tenants on the land, DHHL does not have to tap its limited resources to maintain the property, and the permits bring in revenue that can be used for homesteading initiatives.

But Haliniak dismissed such reasoning and instead focused on the notion that nonbeneficiaries are reaping the benefits of trust land.

"To me, that's very unfair," she said. "I have a hard time with that."

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