Saturday, December 14, 2013

As goes Kauai, so goes the State

Kauai has got me thinking. Most folks on that island populate the northern and eastern sides. Tourists and locals alike are in the coastal towns such as Hanalei, Kilauea, Kapaa and especially Lihue. But once you get past that, the road takes you to the still and quiet leeward side. Out there, Niihau is on the not-too-distant horizon. The paved road ends on the Mana plain at the foot of dried up mountains. Beyond that is a row of kiawe trees. Barking Sands - a vast white sand beach - lies on the other side.
The Garden Isle's quiet leeward side is the land of firsts. Waimea saw Capt. Cook anchor in the islands. His visit to Kauai is considered the start of the modern history of Hawaii. It certainly is the start of Hawaii's contact with the West. A bronze statue commemorates his fateful landfall.
Then there's Koloa: the first sugar plantation, established in 1835. All that's left of the mill is a decrepit brick chimney in the middle of town. The company that started the mill is long gone too. It passed hands for more than a century and a half before it was shut down for good in 1996.
The methods perfected at Koloa became the industry's standard. Koloa was the first plantation to really establish the notorious plantation store. The store was used by workers and accepted a private form of currency - deemed "Kauai currency." It could be redeemed only at the store and the store enjoyed a markup on the price. Koloa also started providing housing for the workers but took some of their pay in the bargain.
Koloa is now a major tourist attraction. The former plantation-era storefronts sell knickknacks, wind chimes and sarongs to visitors. It reminds me of Paia, Makawao and Lahaina. Tourism has moved into the old sugar infrastructure. The contrast is sharpest in Koloa - right in the town is a massive statue commemorating the migrations of workers that came to the islands to work in the fields.
The plantations are gone now. Even the archaic Gay & Robinson plantation - the only one that never had an organized workforce - does not produce sugar anymore. The old houses are rotting in the sun. Rusty iron gates close off roads that used to course through sugar cane fields. It's simply gone.
But the newer industries are also on leeward Kauai. The military has an outpost at the far end of the Kuhio Highway in the Kekaha District. The Pacific Missile Range Facility is on the beach across the channel from Niihau. For decades and throughout the Cold War, the Air Force has been launching test missiles from that remote spot.
Now, there's a new and divisive industry setting up shop out there. Just like on Maui, Molokai and parts of Oahu, seed companies have come to Kauai in a big way. Dow Chemical, DuPont, BASF, Bayer and Syngenta all have facilities on the island. And just like the folks here, their presence has divided the community.
Dow Chemical, for example, has something called an "agroscience" division that partnered up with Gay & Robinson to research and experiment with insecticide-resistant seeds. It has brought much-needed jobs and income to the quiet leeward coast, but many fear that the experiments may harm the environment and health of the rest of Kauai. All along the Kuhio Highway there were handmade signs in support of a bill that would regulate genetically modified organisms.
Very recently, the bill passed the County Council after a grueling session that didn't let up until 3:30 in the morning. Council Member Gary Hooser sponsored legislation to set up GMO-free zones around schools, hospitals, roads and other places. It authorizes the county to investigate the impact of GMOs in the environment. And it targets the big companies on the leeward side.
After all that, the mayor vetoed the bill on the grounds that it was legally flawed. Essentially, this is the kind of regulation, he argued, that should come from the state, not the county. Maybe so, but the state doesn't have to act (at least for now) because the council overrode the veto last month. The law will be implemented next year. The companies already plan on challenging the law. The seed showdown on Kauai continues.
What started on Kauai is spreading to other islands. The Big Island just passed a similar regulation, and now our own council got in on the act. Councilwoman Elle Cochran introduced a bill with a similar intent last week.
The seed industry is new to Hawaii, and Kauai's law is the first of its kind. Given the other things that the county has introduced to the rest of the islands - be it contact with the West or the sugar plantation - the companies setting up shop and the government response could be another historic first.