Learning About Local Food Systems: the ahupua’a

Written by Plant With Purpose on August 5, 2014 in General


As summer vacations are in full swing, friends and family are getting out to explore new and exotic places. People are taking advantage of the warm weather and long days by hiking the John Muir Trail, trekking through the English countryside, and camping out under stars. One aspect of travel is learning about local culture—people’s traditions, practices, diets, and language. Today, we’ve asked long-time Plant With Purpose friend Colin Richard to share about food systems in Hawaii.

Hello to all of you Plant With Purpose blog readers! I write to you from Hilo, Hawai’i, the island in the Hawai’ian chain known as the The Big Island or the Island of Hawai’i. I’m excited to be here and have the opportunity to experience tropical agriculture in a context that has some similarities with Plant With Purpose’s international programs.

Plant With Purpose has increasingly moved towards engaging communities as they fall along a watershed basin. In places where modern infrastructure such as water, power, and other utilities do not exist, this approach is proving effective. From another perspective, some of us in developed nations are rethinking the way we have been meeting food, water, energy, and other needs and are seeking ways to learn from the wisdom and traditions of both historic and modern indigenous people.


Detail of the land management techniques that comprise an ahupua’a

Over the years, I’ve been given the opportunity to teach, speak publicly, and consult on the aspects of agroforestry, appropriate technology, and other topics that are often grouped together under the banner of permaculture—a comprehensive sustainable design system. It was at a permaculture course several years ago when one of the teachers, Jeff Adams, introduced me to a watershed-based land management system from Hawai’i called “ahupua’a”. The ahupua’a system was highly efficient and provided a truly sustainable way of life for the physical needs of the Hawai’ian islanders to be met:

The concept of private property was unknown to ancient Hawaiians, but they did follow a complex system of land division . . . Shaped by island geography, each ahupua`a was a wedge-shaped area of land running from the uplands to the sea, following the natural boundaries of the watershed. Each ahupua`a contained the resources the human community needed, from fish and salt, to fertile land for farming taro or sweet potato, to koa and other trees growing in upslope areas. Villagers from the coast traded fish for other foods or for wood to build canoes and houses. Specialized knowledge and resources peculiar to a small area were also shared among ahupua`a.


Map of the ahupua’a subdivisions of the Island of Hawai’i

Just like the ancient Hawaiians, all of us live in a watershed; however, how we treat our watershed probably differs. It is up to us to learn from these cultures and how they interacted with the life-giving source of water, food, and transportation. Whether we are in an urban or rural area, in a developed or developing country, we can gain understanding of the environmental, economic and spiritual systems that comprise the world around us. May we posture ourselves to learn from these cultures and integrate their examples in our own context.

The first documented visit to the Kingdom of Hawai’i by Europeans in 1778 shares that there were over 100,000 more people living on the Big Island then than there are today. They had a completely self-sufficient way of life which, despite the best efforts of many residents and visitors, contrasts starkly with today’s lifestyles. It could be that we have much to learn, not only from the ancient Hawai’ians lifestyle, but also from the contemporary Hawai’ian cultural revitalization that began in earnest in the 1970s.


Whether you still have vacation plans this summer or are interested in learning about local indigenous cultures, I’d encourage you to approach the matter with an open mind to learn. It is a great honor to visit the people of Hawai’i and their land and sea. Plant With Purpose has influenced the way I approach interacting with local cultures. Their focus on local knowledge and empowerment as contrasted with “one size fits all” development solutions has been inspirational to me over the years. It is reasons such as this that makes me proud to be part of their journey.

To learn more about watershed stewardship in the San Diego area, visit the San Diego Canyonland’s website.

To learn more about sustainable food systems in the San Diego area, visit the Wild Willow Farm and Education Center’s website.

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