Caleb Jones/AP
Native Hawaiian activists pray during a protest against the building of a telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii’s tallest peak, on July 14, 2019. The spirit of environmental stewardship has made Hawaii a national leader.

Protecting people, protecting nature

Western environmentalism has been built on the concept that humans and conservation are incompatible. But malama ‘aina offers a different perspective.

The word is uniquely Hawaiian, but the concept behind it is essentially universal among indigenous peoples across the world: malama ‘aina. It means that when we care for the Earth, we care for ourselves and for future generations. And in Hawaii, the concept is everywhere, from a local surfboard-maker who promises “Every carved board is 100% natural, and does not contain any chemicals or man-made substances” to classes in “scientific and cultural aspects of Hawaiian land stewardship” at Kauai Community College.

In this week’s cover story by staff writer Noelle Swan and contributor Nathan Eagle of Honolulu Civil Beat, malama ‘aina is at the heart of a green revolution. The state of Hawaii has promised to get all its energy from renewable sources by 2045. That spirit of stewardship has made it a national leader. If Hawaii can accomplish its goal, it could blaze a trail for the mainland and beyond.

But, truth be told, malama ‘aina is much more than just a revolution of photovoltaic cells and wind turbines. It is a revolutionary way of thinking.

For 100 years, Western environmentalism has been built on the concept that humans and conservation are fundamentally incompatible. The path toward creating America’s national parks included driving Native Americans out of areas such as Yosemite and Yellowstone. That model of conservation has largely held sway since, even spreading from America to Africa.

From a Western perspective, perhaps, the logic is sound. Western societies have been built primarily from consumption of natural resources. The advance of Western civilization has invariably meant the retreat of nature, with parks put aside as intentional exceptions.  

But malama ‘aina offers a different perspective. Perhaps humans and nature can live together. There is plentiful evidence for this. For example, areas of language diversity correspond with areas of biodiversity, according to a 2012 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In other words, where the kaleidoscope of indigenous tongues still thrive, nature thrives.

Indeed, when indigenous peoples have been given tenure on their land in Brazil and other South American countries, rates of deforestation are two to three times slower, a 2016 World Resources Institute study found.

This is not to suggest the world should revert to an indigenous lifestyle. Modern society has fueled extraordinary advances in the arts and sciences, and created unprecedented wealth and interconnection. But it would also be foolish to think that indigenous cultures have nothing to teach the world.

To reach a goal of protecting 20% of its land by next year, Canada has entrusted arboreal forests in Manitoba to the care of First Nation communities, the United Nations Environment Program notes. The country is recognizing – and responding to – “the desire of indigenous peoples to determine how best to create healthier, more prosperous communities while protecting their land,” said Environment Minister Catherine McKenna in 2017.

Indigenous peoples live on 18% of the world’s land. If empowered, they can make a difference. But it is the impact they can have on the other 82% that is perhaps most intriguing. And Hawaii is offering a glimpse of how that could take shape.

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