SUSTAINABILITY The Old Hawaiian Way
by Heidi Pool

Hawaiians enjoyed abundance and a quality lifestyle with a good deal of leisure time for recreation.

The ancient Hawaiians were masters of sustainability thousands of years before the term was even coined. Although the concept of private property was unknown to them, they did follow an organized system of land division. Upside-down, wedge-shaped portions of land, known as ahupua‘a, were created. Each was ruled by an ali‘i (chief) and administered by a konohiki (the chief’s righthand man). The term ahupua‘a is derived from two Hawaiian words: ahu, meaning “heap” or “pile,” and pua‘a (pig). The boundary markers for ahupua‘a were traditionally heaps of stones used to place an offering—often a pig—to the island’s chief.

Balance, Regulation & Sharing —

The resources needed to sustain ancient Hawaiian life

Each ahupua‘a was shaped by island geography, running from the uplands to the sea, and following the natural boundaries of the watershed. Ahupua‘a contained all the resources needed to sustain human life: fish and salt from the sea, fertile land higher up for farming taro (for poi) and sweet potato, and koa and other useful trees that grow in the higher elevations. Villagers from the coast traded fish for other foods, or for wood to build canoes and houses.

The size of the ahupua‘a depended upon the resources available in the area, with poorer agricultural regions split into larger ahupua‘a to compensate for the relative lack of natural abundance. Since Lahaina was rich in both land and water, it contained the largest number of ahupua‘a in all of Maui.

The Hawaiians believed that land, the sea, clouds, and all of nature had a certain interconnectedness, and they used all of the resources around them to reach a desired balance in life. Sustainability was maintained by the konohiki and kahuna (priests), who restricted the fishing of certain species during specific seasons so as not to deplete their supplies, a practice that’s still followed in modern day Hawai‘i. They also regulated the harvesting of plants. Through sharing resources and constantly working within the rhythms of their natural environment, Hawaiians enjoyed abundance and a quality lifestyle with a good deal of leisure time for recreation. 

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