Column: Restoring Hawaii’s wetlands is caring for our history, culture
Wetlands, where land and water meet, are among the most productive and important ecosystems on the planet, rivaling or exceeding tropical rainforests.
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Wetlands, where land and water meet, are among the most productive and important ecosystems on the planet, rivaling or exceeding tropical rainforests. Many traditional societies, including those of Hawaii, saw the great value of these ecosystems and treated them with respect. But industrialized societies view them as smelly and lifeless, a waste of space. Most wetlands have been “reclaimed”: filled in with dirt for other uses.
What is now Waikiki was once one of the largest and most important freshwater wetlands in Hawaii. People praised its reclamation as a great exchange; trading a mosquito-filled swamp for a tourism-boosting beach. But what were we throwing away?
The theme of this year’s World Wetlands Day, on Feb. 8, is “Wetlands & Biodiversity.” Since 2000, the global community has become aware of the great value of biodiversity — the variety and richness of species and ecosystems on the planet — to human well-being. The diverse and abundant non-human life on Earth is the foundation of our existence, and as our actions unravel the intricate tapestry of ecosystems, we are cutting off our parachute straps and risking a plunge into certain death.
Wetlands are hotspots of valuable biodiversity — nearly half of the world’s plants and animals use wetlands for some part of their life — and the case is no different in Hawaii. Hawaiian wetlands (muli wai) support a diversity of precious native plants, including makaloa (Cyperus laevigatus; used for weaving mats), neke fern (Cyclosorus interruptus, used in lei -making) and ahu‘awa (Cyperus javanicus; used to make filters for ‘awa drink).
Wetlands are not always wild areas, but can also be ‘aina, land that is the product of human stewardship and care. In ancient Hawaii, wetlands and people flourished together. The lo‘i kalo, a central part of Hawaiian land and water management, was a modification of existing wetland habitats, and minimally impacted natural water flow.
In this practice, a portion of stream would be diverted to the lo‘i field to filter through the roots of the crops and then returned further downstream. These diversions created homes for many native species, including wai manu (waterbirds like the endangered ‘alae ‘ula) that were guardian spirits to many lo‘i and beloved by farmers.
Many of our native birds were respected by Hawaiian royalty and thus protected from over exploitation. The ‘alae ‘ula were regarded as keepers to the secret of fire and kinolau, physical manifestations of the goddess Hina (Hawaiian mythology’s deity of the moon and the tides).
Wetlands are a key part of the natural and cultural heritage of Hawaii, and to ignore them, or worse, allow their continued destruction, is an erasure of Hawaiian native history. Like elsewhere on Earth, Hawaiian wetlands have been lost to development (more than 50% on Oahu), and much greater amounts (70-80%) are severely degraded by invasive plant species and poor water management. Many of Hawaii’s larger wetlands could be massively beneficial to biodiversity, but are so choked by invasive plants that their habitat value for native wildlife is limited.
The loss and degradation of wetlands around the world means that protecting what’s left is no longer enough. Restoring wetlands, making new ones and improving and repairing those that remain, is key to the future of biodiversity and people in a climate-uncertain future.
Charles van Rees, Ph.D., is a conservation biologist and the advisory ecologist for Livable Hawaii Kai Hui; Martha Kawasaki is a researcher in waterbird ecology, ethnozoology and ethnobotany at the University of Hawaii-Hilo.