Kauai and Hawaii Today
Despite its small size—about 550 square mi—Kauai has four distinct regions, each with its own unique characteristics. The windward coast, which catches the prevailing trade winds, consists of the North Shore and East Side, while the drier, leeward coast encompasses the South Shore and West Side. One main road nearly encircles the island, except for a 15-mi stretch of sheer cliffs called the Napali Coast.
The center of the island—Mt. Waialeale, completely inaccessible by car and rarely viewable except from above due to nearly year-round cloud cover—is the wettest spot on earth, getting about 450 inches of rain per year.
Hawaiian culture and tradition here have experienced a renaissance over the last few decades. There's a real effort to revive traditions and to respect history as the Islands go through major changes. New developments often have a Hawaiian cultural expert on staff to ensure cultural sensitivity and to educate newcomers.
Nonetheless, development remains a huge issue for all Islanders—land prices are skyrocketing, putting many areas out of reach for the native population. Traffic is becoming a problem on roads that were not designed to accommodate all the new drivers, and the Islands' limited natural resources are being seriously tapped. The government, though sluggish to respond at first, is trying to make development in Hawaii as sustainable as possible.
Prior to Western contact, Hawaii's native dwellers were 100% sustainable. For a place so well endowed with the richest natural resources, contemporary Hawaii is a far cry from its past. This great challenge also presents a great opportunity. Hawaii's climate and renewable resources—the sun, the wind, and the waves—can be developed for the greater good and provide almost every conceivable kind of alternative energy.
Although sustainability is an effective buzzword and authentic direction for the island's dining establishments, 90% of Hawaii's food and energy is imported. Most of the land is used for monocropping of pineapples or sugarcane, which have both severely declined in the past decades. Sugarcane is now only produced commercially on Maui, while pineapple production has dropped by half. Dole, once the largest pineapple company in Hawaii, closed its plants in 1991, and after 90 years, Del Monte stopped pineapple production in 2008. The next year, Maui Land and Pineapple Company also ceased its Maui Gold pineapple operation although about one-third of its crop was taken over in early 2010 by a group of execs who created a new company. Low cost of labor and transportation from Latin American and Southeast Asian countries are factors for the industry's demise. Although this proves daunting, it also sets the stage for great agricultural change to be explored.
Back to Basics Agriculture
Emulating how the Hawaiian ancestors lived and returning to their simple ways of growing and sharing a variety of foods has become a statewide initiative. Hawaii has the natural conditions and talent to produce far more diversity in agriculture than it currently does.
The seed of this movement thrives through various farmers' markets and partnerships between restaurants and local farmers. Localized efforts such as the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation are collectively leading the organic and sustainable agricultural renaissance. From home-cooked meals to casual plate lunches to fine-dining cuisine, these sustainable trailblazers enrich the culinary tapestry of Hawaii and uplift the island's overall quality of life.
Tourism and the Economy
The over-$10 billion tourism industry represents a third of Hawaii's state income. Naturally, this dependency causes economic hardship as the financial meltdown of recent years affects tourists' ability to visit and consume. One way the industry has made changes has been to adopt more eco-conscious practices, as many Hawaiians feel that planning shouldn't happen without regard for impact to local communities and their natural environment.
Belief that an industry based on the Hawaiians' aloha should protect, promote, and empower local culture and provide more entrepreneurial opportunities for local people has become more important to tourism businesses. More companies are incorporating authentic Hawaiiana in their programs and aim not only to provide a commercially viable tour but also to ensure that the visitor leaves feeling connected to his or her host. The concept of kuleana, a word for both privilege and responsibility, is upheld. Having the privilege to live in such a sublime place comes with the responsibility to protect it.
Political issues of sovereignty continue to divide the natives of Hawaii with myriad organizations, each operating with separate agendas but collectively lacking one defined goal. Ranging from achieving complete and utter independence to solidifying a nation within a nation, existing sovereignty models remain fractured and their future unresolved. The introduction of the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act of 2009 attempts to set up a legal framework in which Native Hawaiians can attain federal recognition and reparation, and coexist as a self-governed entity. Also known as the Akaka Bill after Senator Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, this pending bill has been presented before Congress and is still evolving at the time of this writing.
Rise of Hawaiian Pride
After Hawaii received statehood in 1959, a process of Americanization transpired. Traditions were duly silenced in the name of citizenship. Hawaiian language and arts were banned from schools and children were distanced from their local customs. But Hawaiians are resilient people, and with the rise of the civil rights movement they began to reflect on their own national identity, bringing an astonishing renaissance of the Hawaiian culture to fruition. The people rediscovered language, the hula, the chant or mele, and even the traditional Polynesian art of canoe building and wayfinding (navigation by the stars without use of instruments). This cultural resurrection is now firmly established in today's Hawaiian culture, with a palpable pride that exudes from Hawaiians young and old.
The election of President Barack Obama has definitely done its share of fueling not only Hawaiian pride but also ubiquitous hope for a better future. The president's strong connection and commitment to Hawaiian values of diversity, spirituality, family, and conservation have restored confidence that Hawaii can inspire a more peaceful, tolerant, and environmentally conscious world.