For more than one-hundred and fifty years, companies have produced the sweet condiment in the islands. It’s just about gone. Maui is the last place in the islands where you can still see sugar cane waving in the trade winds.
That also makes Maui the last place in Hawaii to experience a cane fire. The next time you find yourself driving up to the Crater for sunrise, check out the island below and look for bright orange lines of fire illuminating the dark.
From that vantage point, the fires are spectacular. When you are stuck in traffic commuting to work and you are engulfed in haze and ash as a thick columns of smoke rises above the fields and the highway, however, it’s hellish.
When I was a kid, I didn’t think anything of it. Cane fires were normal like trade winds and big surf in the winter time. It was an unquestioned part of life on Maui.
That’s changed. Years ago I met a lawyer from California who had experienced his first cane fire at his hotel in Wailea. He was utterly amazed that we still had cane fires. How come, he wondered, no one challenged the sugar companies for burning their fields? Surely it couldn’t be legal, he said.
That challenge has finally come. An unincorporated entity calling itself Stop Cane Burning, along with three individual plaintiffs have sued the State, which issues the permits allowing the burning, and Alexander and Baldwin, the company that runs the Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company.
The plaintiffs argue that the State’s issuance of the permit allowing the cane fires violates the State Constitution’s guarantee of a clean and health environment. They argue that it violates the state’s regulations designed to ensure a clean and healthy environment. The plaintiffs are also seeking an injunction that would stop all cane fires while the case is pending. Alexander and Baldwin filed a motion to dismiss the case all together. Both the matters are set for a hearing before Judge Joseph E. Cardoza in September.
This is more than just a lawsuit. Cane fires are a perennial talking point here. No one likes a raging fire near their home, workplace, or school. The fires are a health hazard and a nuisance. Ash in the stairwells are ugly. Irritated eyes and constantly coughing is no way to live, but sugar is part of life.
“The sugar cane industry is not ‘a Hawaiian institution’ and it was not kanaka who industrialized it,” said one of plaintiffs, Trinette Furtado.
She’s right. Sugar changed Hawaii dramatically.
Consider the land. Sugar transformed the arid hills and plains of Central Maui into the green fields we see from the airport to Upcountry today. The sugar industry long ago took water from the rainy North Shore and the verdant parts of the West Maui Mountains through an intricate system of irrigation ditches. It wasn’t a surprise that the water for the thirsty crop changed the streamflow. Hundreds of years later the use of the water remains in dispute.
But perhaps the most dramatic change brought about by sugar was the importation of immigrant labor. Everyone educated in Hawaii knows that the sugar cane industry brought in people to tend the fields, maintain the ditches, harvest the plants, and run the mills.
Sugar companies recruited and used workers and their families from just about every part of the world. They were housed in plantation homes and raised their children in the plantation school. For decades, the sugar cane industry created its own closed culture.
Furtado is right. Sugar is not a Native Hawaiian institution. The sugar industry mixed people with diverse backgrounds together into a one-of-a-kind creation we now call “local culture.” For many folks, an attack on the sugar cane industry is obnoxious and offensive. Some see it as an attack on local culture itself. HC&S has tried to find an alternative to cane burning, but no viable solution is in sight. HC&S, which employs approximately 800 folks, does not and cannot seem to separate sugar harvesting from cane fires.
And so begins what could be a big case for Hawaii. I’m sure as the hearing date gets closer the perennial debate between the pro-sugar and anti-fire camps will heat up. Angry letters will no doubt be sent to and published in this paper. Comments online will be unforgiving, misinformed, and vicious.
But can both sides prevail? Can we keep the sugar cane and at least minimize smoke and ash to reduce complaints? Or will the residents in Kihei and Paia be finally free from smoke and ash at the expense of the last sugar company in Hawaii? And what becomes of the 36,000 acres of cane fields? The answer could be coming soon and it may not be pretty.