Friday, January 15, 2016

So long, sugar. What's next, A&B?



After work this week, I was heading east on the Hana Highway in that dreadful line of vehicles that forms outside of Paia. To my right were the charred remains and broken glass from a car that had been abandoned, later set on fire and eventually towed away. Beyond that, I took a good, long look at the field off the road shoulder. So long, sugar.

Cane fields start at the western lip of Maliko Gulch and don't stop until you hit Kihei. Cane surrounds our airport and stops right at the new industrial park around Dairy Road. It hugs the West Maui Mountains next to Waikapu as if it were a green, grassy flood.

This huge swath of land is all that's left of the historic crop that changed these islands. Alexander & Baldwin announced last week that this was the last harvest for Maui, which means the last commercial harvest for sugar in all of Hawaii. In 2017, sugar will be gone like that old, burnt-out car on the side of the road.

The end of the sugar era is in sight. Some celebrate. Opponents of cane burning are happy to see the blazing fires, columns of smoke and periodic rain of ash falling into yards, swimming pools and cars come to an end.

Others are somber. There are around 660 cane workers looking for jobs. On top of that, locals have taken the sugar era's end particularly hard. It's hard for many to imagine Hawaii without sugar.

Public school kids have to learn about the sugar industry in history class. We learn about its beginnings on Kauai in the 1830s and how it grew into a major economic engine in the kingdom. Its influence was so great that many of the businessmen behind the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom were heavily invested in the sugar industry.

Sugar demanded amazing feats of engineering to get the water from East Maui and the north shore through gulches and mountains and onto the arid isthmus to water the crops.

There was some social engineering too. Companies recruited workers from Asia, the Americas and Europe. The color of your skin and your national origin determined how much the company was willing to pay you.

You lived in camps and usually ran up a big debt with the company store, making it hard to save enough to start on your own. You were forced to somehow get along with your neighbors, who also came from some other part of the world. It became the foundation of local culture.

When I was a history student, we learned that for decades our economy, politics and society were dominated by sugar barons and corporations. These companies fought tough battles against their workers and the right to organize and lost. The plantations were organized and the companies started collective bargaining with workers. By the time Hawaii entered the union in 1959, the companies made their peace with labor.

Perhaps it is time for sugar to leave the islands. Sugar has been slowly declining for most of the second half of the 20th century. Maybe it was only a matter of time. So what will take its place?

Nobody really knows, but some envision a dystopian future full of swirling dust bowls and a plunging economy. A&B wants diversified agriculture, but that has left many scratching their heads. What does that look like? What kind of crops will that be? Is this shibai, just talk?

The cane fire opponents now have a new fear: The green fields will be replaced by tract homes and development.

Going back to my commute home, when I finally got through Paia's plantation-era buildings that now house high-end boutique stores and organic foods and crossed over Maliko Gulch, I was in Haiku. There used to be pineapple fields on the other side of Maliko, but they've been gone for years now and nothing has replaced them. The only thing in the fallow fields are long, tall patches of grass, wild trees and a Realtor's sign advertising residential housing lots for sale. Is that what's in store?

One thing is certain: Sugar may be a thing of the past, but the companies are still around.

The late musician Joe Strummer said that the future is unwritten. Well put, but it doesn't feel like regular folks will be doing the writing. The days of social, economic and political dominance by big landowners and companies aren't numbered like the cane fields. Just what will happen to the land doesn't seem to be up to us. We will have to wait and see what A&B wants to do.

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