It looks like a vast carpet starting at the edge of Pukalani and descending the isthmus through Central Maui all the way to the West Maui Mountains. It rolls out from the edge of Maliko Gulch for miles all the way to Kihei. It's in the background of thousands of photographs in the newspaper, vacation photos, and in family scrapbooks. It's part of the scenery.
Most of the time cane fields are green and pleasing to the eye. Nobody knows what Maui was like before cane fields. We are among the last in the islands still producing sugar on an industrial scale. There are only two mills left in the state. Unlike the mill on the leeward side of Kauai, the Puunene mill is centrally located for everyone to see. This is one of the last places where you can still see harvested cane being hauled to the mill in gigantic vehicles that dwarf just about anything else on the road.
It's living history. Right across the street from the mill is the aptly located museum devoted to the sugar industry. We all know that sugar is no longer king here, but many are content to know that we still produce the stuff on Maui.
Except for just one thing. After two steady and careful years of watching a cane field grow tall and green, we set it on fire. We've all seen the distinct thick column of smoke rising above the island. When burns are close to the highway, we get to see the red and brown earth and the charred remains of the cane. The smell of smoke fills the air.
Cane burning is part of life here on Maui, but lately it's divided the community. The sucrose - the stuff that becomes the sugar - is in the cane stalk, not the leaves. Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. sets fire to the fields to remove leaves. It makes it easier to remove the stalks and transport them to the mill in Puunene. According to the HC&S website, burning the fields still remains the most economically sound way of removing the leaves.
Downwind towns like Kihei suffer. They are covered in ash and smoke. Residents have trouble breathing in all the smoke and dust kicked up from the fields. These days, more and more people - especially those who did not grow up with cane fires in their backyard - find the practice antiquated and hazardous. They say that it's an obnoxious nuisance and an irritant for those with lung problems.
The state Department of Health has been conducting a study on the health effects of cane burning. Previews of the full study suggest that cane burning is problematic. Dr. Lorrin Pang, the state's district health officer for Maui County, told the press last October that cane burning may be connected to respiratory and eye problems for those who live downwind of the fires, particularly in Kihei and Maalaea.
The study is hitting a roadblock because hospitals and clinics are reluctant to disclose patient records. Nonetheless, opponents of the cane fires are confident that the study will confirm what they knew all along. And maybe, just maybe, it will prompt the state to intervene and finally ban the burn.
Then there are the defenders. HC&S is quick to point out that there is no scientific proof that the fires are bad for the air and people. Its website states that multiple studies conducted by its own company, as well as by state and federal governments and the University of Hawaii, found no evidence that the burning "causes chronic respiratory conditions or other serious health problems."
On top of that, the company makes an economic and cultural argument. HC&S may be part of a dying industry in Hawaii, but it still employs around 800 people. Those are still good union jobs keeping working people employed and satisfied with living wages. The union backs them too.
Last year, more than 200 people rallied to support the company and the union. They even openly defended the burning. This paper caught a particularly troubling handwritten sign: "DON'T MOVE HERE & CHANGE EVERYTHING/NO TAKE OUR JOBS."
Not all cane fire opponents were born elsewhere. And even if they were, so what? Locals, tourists and newcomers all have lungs, eyes and nostrils. The smoke and ash make no distinction.
This summer we've also seen a rash of unscheduled burning of the cane fields flare up. Is it arson? The police think so. Eco-terrorism? The ultimate form of activism? No one's sure.
One thing is certain. While the police investigate and while the state forges on with its study, the debate - like the fires themselves - rages on.
- August 9, 2013