Taro farmers, residents vie for Waiahole patch
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By Loren Moreno
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Loren Moreno
When Daniel Bishop and his group of taro farmers known as Kalopa'a re-established a lo'i in Waiahole Valley 10 years ago, he didn't expect a long and bitter dispute with residents.
Kalopa'a acknowledges the lo'i, or wet taro field, is on the land illegally and has been ordered to cease and desist on three occasions. However, by virtue of their heritage, the group's members believe they have the right and duty to farm the lo'i as some say Hawaiians did decades ago.
The group says it makes no money off the venture and has used the lo'i purely for education busing schoolchildren to the spot to learn Hawaiian values through taro.
Most of those who live in the valley agree that the lo'i should be maintained, just not by an outside group that has violated state law for years.
"We told (Kalopa'a) it was an excellent project it reaches out to young people and teaches them Hawaiian values. What else are you teaching, though? You're teaching them to defy the law," said Richard Garcia, president of the Waiahole-Waikane Community Association, which represents 77 of 91 lessees in the valley who oppose Kalopa'a.
Now Kalopa'a has suffered a setback in its attempt to remain on part of the 51.5-acre parcel known as Lot 79.
For at least five years, the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corp. has tried to resolve the dispute between the taro farmers and residents. Last week, the board decided not to grant Kalopa'a a permit to continue its work on the lo'i, but instead asked all community groups and entities interested in maintaining the portion of land to submit proposals.
NO RENT BEING PAID
While the board said it would prefer that all of Lot 79 remain open space, it also wants the lo'i within it to be maintained and preserved.
"The key is that our board feels very strongly that the taro lo'i use on the portion of Lot 79 is an important and valid educational and cultural use. The board wants the process to be done correctly so that the entity that ultimately receives the revocable permit is both financially solid, culturally solid and that there is no doubt about the right of the entity to maintain the lo'i," said Dan Davidson, executive director of the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corp.
In pleading his group's case before the board, Bishop said that his group's effort has touched hundreds of schoolchildren who might never have experienced a lo'i otherwise.
"We saw a need. We saw an interest. There were people in the community that had no land but were interested in feeling malama 'aina (protecting the land), and teaching Hawaiian values," Bishop said.
But Garcia said Kalopa'a has paid no rent or fees for its use of the state-owned land, while the lessees his organization represents pay their rent. Garcia argued that the open-space lot was intended to benefit all tenants of the Waiahole-Waikane Agricultural Park and not a specific group.
"They've had a free ride for 10 years," Garcia said. "What message does that send to the people who pay their rent?"
People generally agree that the lo'i Kalopa'a maintains has a long history.
Meala Bishop, secretary of Kalopa'a and wife of Daniel Bishop, said she and her husband had a dream of cultivating a lo'i and sharing it with schoolchildren. Bishop said she felt an obligation to carry on the work of her Hawaiian forefathers and to inspire a new generation of taro farmers.
"All subjects can be learned at the lo'i economics, history and even politics," she said. "The lo'i perpetuates our Hawaiian values."
The valley's history complicates efforts to resolve the dispute.
The adjacent Waiahole and Waikane valleys were the center of controversy in the 1970s, when the property owners attempted to evict longtime farmers to develop housing. Under then-Gov. George Ariyoshi, the state bought about 600 acres in the valleys in 1977 to create agriculture and residential subdivisions.
In 1996, Lot 79 in Waiahole Valley, along with three other lots, was designated by the state to remain open and unoccupied. Lease agreements weren't executed until 1998 for the residential and agricultural subdivisions.
TIMING IS AN ISSUE
Kalopa'a, in its attempts to locate former taro farming sites of old Hawai'i, found the abandoned lo'i in Lot 79 in 1996 before it was designated open space and worked with two families in Waiahole to gain access to the site.
The state designated the lot to be open and unoccupied that same year, said Davidson. The group then began working with the state to gain a permit to operate a lo'i on the site, but Kalopa'a was opposed by the Waiahole-Waikane Community Association.
Kalopa'a never received a permit to be within Lot 79 and ignored three cease-and-desist orders since 2002, said Davidson.
However, Davidson said, it is the view of the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corp. that Kalopa'a's presence on the land predated the open-space designation.
"It's not like it was some kind of land grab," Davidson said.
Reach Loren Moreno at email@example.com.