The east end of Maui is a magical place, full of kalo(taro root), magical forests and wisdom that is increasingly rare these days. If you have been there, you will know that there is only one road that goes to Hana and it is ridiculously steep and windy. It is a place that has kept its distance from modernity and held strong to old traditions of wetland taro farming as done by the Hawaiians hundreds of years ago.
The right place anytime
I led a group of undergraduate students on an alternative spring break trip to this region of Maui and it was truly unforgettable. We were assigned to a project of removing invasive species and working in a wetland taro patch with a couple of characters named Uncle John and Tweety. Uncle John and Tweety had been farming wetland taro and various other crops (bananas, sweet potatoes, breadfruit and yams) for decades and were living almost completely off the grid outside the little town of Hana. They showed us how to pound taro root and breadfruit with a thick hard piece of polished wood and stone to make poi-the staple of the traditional Hawaiian diet. Getting to eat the poi that we had freshly pounded was a wonderful experience and one that I wish I had more often.
Poi and sweet potatoes
The health benefits of eating poi and other traditional foods for Hawaiians are astonishing! Studies have documented remission from diabetes, losing several hundred pounds of body weight and numerous other amazing health benefits when Hawaiians change from the standard American diet that includes flour, lots of meat, sugar and processed foods and go back to a traditional Hawaiian diet focusing on poi, sweet potatoes, white fish, yams, breadfruit and greens.
The most poignant thing I remember about the visit with Uncle John and Tweety was their firm belief that, “we can take care of ourselves…” What they meant by this is they have the agricultural knowledge to grow food for themselves and they do not need people from the USDA and other government agencies giving them advice and trying to involve them in various programs. In fact, it was the USDA that approved the importation of the golden apple snail (Pomacea caniliculata) into the Hawaiian Islands, which has wreaked havoc on wetland taro crops. The golden apple snail has been listed as one of the 100 most invasive species on the planet!
Invasion from without
There are many other plant and animal species in Maui that are considered invasive, including wild boar and the infamous Miconia plant. These species are brought in by humans for food, ornamental value or some other reason and usually spread faster than native species due to their high reproductive rates and a lack of local predators. So perhaps Uncle John’s disdain towards outsiders offering advice and trying to modernize his little piece of heaven is a metaphor for the spread of invasive species. That is, nature can take care of itself. When humans introduce a new plant or animal to a different ecosystem, there are often unintended and negative consequences. In the case of Uncle John and Tweety, if the apple snail found its way into their taro patches it could completely destroy their entire way of life.
Your Call to Action
Invasive species are an issue that we can all help with because they are all over the planet. Chances are, you have one in your backyard or in the forest nearby your neighborhood. Some common invasive plants in the U.S. are kudzu, cogon grass, Himalayan blackberry, morning-glory vine, lemon balm, tree of heaven and English ivy. All you have to do to help control the spread of these plants is pull them out of the ground. Imagine the positive effect that we could have on our environment if every person pulled just one invasive plant out of the ground every day!