‘Vulture capitalists’: Maui’s indigenous community fights land grabs after wildfires
The fires were still raging when families in Lahaina started receiving messages from developers asking if they were interested in selling their land.
Several residents in the town told news outlets that they began to receive messages on Facebook and other platforms from people inquiring about whether they were open to parting with their land.
While the incidents made major headlines in the coming weeks and even led to a temporary moratorium on property sales, many within Hawaii's indigenous community, Kanaka Maoli, fear that with the fires in Maui faded and soon with it the media coverage, developers will get back on the hunt, targeting the victims of these fires for their land.
"These vulture capitalists, vulture developers are preying upon our people and our connection to the land during a time when none of us have been given time to properly grieve," said Kahala Johnson, a PhD student at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and an indigenous activist with ancestral ties to Maui.
Despite all of the outrage around these recent land grabs, the dispossession of Hawaii's land has been a part of the island's history since the arrival of American settlers in the 19th century.
And even though the local indigenous population has been fighting back against the loss of their lands, it has been an uphill and losing battle for much of the Kanaka Maoli's history since coming under the sphere of the United States.
"Today's struggle has been one where native Hawaiians who are cognisant of these titles [to their land] - some have original documents - have been fighting against land developers, tourists, the industrial military complex, and other encroachments on their ancestral lands," Johnson told Middle East Eye.
"It's a very complicated, multi-layered issue, but these fires add another element to this. Capitalists, both local and international, are trying to once again challenge these claims to the land."
Johnson and other indigenous activists are working hastily to not only combat the real estate companies looking to profit off of the tragedy but also inform their own people about their legal rights to the land.
While the US has certain rights and regulations regarding private property, Hawaii is a complex situation since Washington annexed the island nation in 1898. Indigenous people have for decades been fighting for recognition of their own land rights that were created prior to annexation.
For Johnson, the best way forward is to help the people of Maui understand the full extent of their land rights.
"I hope to hold these people accountable, but I also hope to have our people be given the information they need to fight against these kinds of intrusion."
Severing indigenous connections to the land
Hawaii was a sovereign nation until the 1890s when a group of American missionaries who ran plantations in the country overthrew the island's ruler, Queen Liliuokalani.
In the lead-up to that moment, the leaders of Hawaii were forced to grapple with the issue of how to protect their land. Prior to being introduced to capitalism through the American settlers, the islanders did not have a concept of private property.
"We didn't have structures of property ownership, instead it was more of a stewardship arrangement between chiefs and commoners," Johnson said.
Eventually, through this American encroachment, the island's leaders came up with the Mahele system, which mixed together traditional concepts around private ownership and the people's relationship with the land.
In 1848, King Kamehameha III introduced the Great Mahele, which divided up Hawaii's land and gave native Hawaiians the right to own land. The king kept one-third of the lands which were deemed the crownlands, while allowing Hawaiians to apply for land titles.
"Some of the Hawaiian leaders saw this privatisation of land as a means to fend off some of the land grabs," Isaki told MEE.
Indigenous leaders also made a decision in the introduction of the Mahele system, in which land passed down in a family would be equally divided amongst all children in the family, making it difficult for outsiders to obtain land on the islands.
"Our leaders in the Hawaiian kingdom, they did not introduce a patrilineal or matrilineal system [of inheritance]. Instead, the interests in the lands would be divided amongst the next generation - the children and grandchildren," Johnson said.
However, following the American settlers' overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani, Hawaii's native population suffered a multigenerational loss in education and culture and many Hawaiians these days are not familiar with inheritance laws. And Hawaii's crown lands were made a part of the public domain, and began being sold off to raise money.
"I've heard of people getting drafted into the US military in the early 20th century - Hawaiian farmers - to get them off the land," Isaki said.
"There is a colony of people with Hansen's disease. And there are also people who say that none of them had Hansen's disease or leprosy and they were carted off to get them off the land. There were a lot of shady, shady land transfers."
Many developers were also been able to purchase entire swaths of land by only purchasing titles from individual family members, according to Johnson.
"A lot of our people are uninformed about this. Developers will gain one family member's interest and then claim total interest in the land."
To fight against these land grabs, members of the Kanaka Maoli have waged a myriad of legal battles in Hawaiian and US courts. Isaki has worked on a number of these cases, including one that she helped win in 2017, helping a native Hawaiian family retain the rights to their land.
Billions injected into Maui real estate
The community of Lahaina, a town located on the coast of Hawaii's second-largest island Maui, like others on the island, witnessed one of the worst fires in the archipelago's history last month.
The official death toll has been placed at 97, while thousands of others have been displaced. More than 86 percent of the 2,200 structures destroyed in the fires were residential.
In addition to being a doctoral student, Johnson is also a part of the Maui Medic Healers Hui, a grassroots organisation working on the ground to support the ongoing relief efforts for the victims of the fires.
The group, which consists of members of Maui's indigenous community, has been working since the first day of the fires to provide emergency supplies and whatever else victims need.
Within days, word had begun to spread across the community that some people were getting calls inquiring about their land.
"My initial reaction should have been shock, but as a political science student in indigenous politics, I had an idea of similar incidents that have happened in the past across different native populations," Johnson told MEE.
"I knew that these folks would come in and vulture around and prey upon my people and other local families in the area."
Left: A picture of one of Maui's coastlines (AFP) Right: A picture showing the wreckage left by the wildfires in Maui in August 2023 (AP)
Maui is the second-largest of Hawaii's islands and is home to a famed and picturesque coastline that brings in tourists from all over the world. For the same reasons tourists flock to the island, so have a number of billionaires, resorts and agricultural companies, who all own land on the island.
Many prominent individuals own land on Maui, including Oprah Winfrey, Amazon chairman Jeff Bezos, and Oracle executive Larry Ellison. This has also led to a major backlash of its own, especially after Oprah and Dwayne Johnson - two American billionaires - were rebuked for asking for people to donate money to a relief fund they created.
Some of the biggest purchasers of land, however, are investment and development firms. According to the most recent report on the Hawaii government's website, one of the largest landowners in Maui is a commercial real estate company - Alexander and Baldwin. The company owns about one-seventh of the total island's land, according to the 2017 report.
"There are billions and billions of dollars being injected into real estate through hedge funds, pension funds, large international investments, agencies, finance developments," Bianca Isaki, a lawyer and community activist in Maui, told MEE.
"With all this money, coming in, everything gets very expensive. And that's also driving the housing crisis. So that's also why people might want to grab the land."
Hawaii and Palestine
On 9 September, the Maui Medic Healers Hui hosted an online Zoom call with Palestinian activists and academics. The session was part academic and educational, and part of it was a healing circle meant to unite over a common sense of grief.
Hawaii is not viewed by the general American public as an issue of settler-colonialism, but the academic space to discuss its history of colonialism is growing both in the state and internationally.
Hawaiian academics have also sought to connect more with members of the Palestinian community as a means of solidarity and connecting over a shared experience.
'Palestinians and native Hawaiians have quite different histories. But we do share a great deal as well as including the violence of settler colonialism'
- Rana Barakat, Birzeit University
"My time with Kanaka Maoli in Hawaii is the first time I think I ever really viscerally felt, outside of the Arab world, solidarity from others for Palestine," Nour Joudah, an assistant professor at the University of California Los Angeles, said during the webinar.
In addition to using the space as a healing circle, the webinar also served as a means for the members of the two groups of people to share wisdoms and advice for each other's causes.
"Palestinians and native Hawaiians have quite different histories. But we do share a great deal as well as including the violence of settler colonialism," said Rana Barakat, an assistant professor of history at Birzeit University in the occupied West Bank.
"We can contest the same colonial apparatus, this huge historical apparatus functions differently in different geography, but it is a real and material monster that is driven by the fuel of our elimination."
The fires last month were in part fuelled by the abandoned sugar plantations and expansion of grasslands on Maui. And it was one sugar plantation, Pioneer Mill, that was central in many land cases Kanaka Maoli have been fighting.
"Settler colonialism did not only just devastate the islands, it transformed the ecology, very fabric of life, that it became so vulnerable, to destruction," said Ali Musleh, a fellow at Columbia University's Center for Palestine Studies and professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
One of the central projects that activists and academics on Maui had been focused on was the Lahaina Heritage Museum, which was home to many of the island's historical artefacts and documents, including title registries.
However, like many of the thousands of buildings on Maui, the museum also went up in flames. It was a devastating blow to the native community, who had worked so long against the erasure of their history and culture.
"One of the things that we're working now is to try to recover the archives as much as possible, and to replace things that were lost with things that can be made or replicated today," Johnson said.
"As much as it is a huge loss, it is also a chance for us to reconnect with who we are as a community, as a nation, as a country and as a people."