Protecting the Wao Kanaka: The Role of Hawaiian Islands Land Trust While there are a number of conservation organizations dedicated to the preservation of Hawai’i’s most pristine and remote areas, the Land Trust’s focus is on protecting the areas where people regularly connect with nature.
When the first Polynesians arrived in Hawai’i extensive forests stretched across virtually every island. They set about utilizing these natural resources to foster a strong and healthy community. Although these early settlers initiated significant changes to the landscape, their cultural paradigm of cooperation and reciprocity governed their interactions with both the human and natural world. These ideas of reciprocity and cooperation are embodied in the idea of aloha ‘aina, or love of land.
Expressed in a variety of ways, this connection was often described through the distinction between the wao kanaka and the wao akua. The wao kanaka constituted the lands, particularly the forested lands (wao), most accessible to the community and therefore providing the bulk of the material culture the Hawaiian people (kanaka) relied upon. Because of its critical importance to the life and well being of the community, caring for and conserving these resources became a critical part of Hawaiian culture. And, since human activity was most extensive in this region, the wao kanaka across Hawai’i is most marked by the evidence of past generations.
The wao akua (or forest of the gods) consisted of land not easily accessible by humans. As one author points out, Hawaiians understood the wao akua as a source of supernatural activity, remote, difficult to penetrate, and awesome. While excursions to the wao akua were relatively rare, it was in this realm that koa logs were harvested to become the canoes which united the various islands. It was also the place where forest bird feathers were collected to make the stunning capes worn by the ali‘i. For anyone who has spent time in the misty reaches of the wao akua, its power and influence does not soon leave you. Much important conservation work is taking place in the wao akua, with organizations HILT works closely and collaboratively with including the various watershed partnerships, the state of Hawai’i, and The Nature Conservancy.
HILT has protected some lands in the wao akua, but the bulk of our protected lands lie below. The wao kanaka, the areas where humans live, love, laugh and build strong communities, is where we cultivate our sense of aloha ‘aina. Conservation in these areas— through protection of agricultural lands, the cultural and historical sites that tell our stories, and our most threatened ecosystems—is vital to how we as a modern society continue to connect with the natural world. It is where we, as a community, must put our beliefs about our relationship to the land into action.