Reviews | Hawaii is overrun with chickens, yes – but also with the military and tourists

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Keoni DeFranco is a Hawaiian writer, activist and organizer with Oahu Water Protectors.

OʻAHU — Fifteen hundred years ago, the first canoes landed on the shores of our islands. Our Polynesian Traveler ancestors stepped out onto the sands of Hawaii…and so did their chickens.

Animals – moahas we native Hawaiians know them – had been domesticated and transported in the double-hulled ships of the voyageur, along with pigs, dogs and canoe cultures such as kalo (taro), `ulu (breadfruit) and ʻuala (Yam).

Over the following centuries, Native Hawaiians, or maoli kanaka, developed a complex, regenerative and self-sufficient agricultural system in their new home, and the moa proliferated. Now they have proliferated a bit too many for some, multiplying in our streets and courtyards. So many wild chickens roam Hawaii, dropping litter and crowing at all hours that the government recently launched a pilot program to capture them. The high cost – about $100 per bird captured – has drawn national attention.

It is true that our islands are invaded, but not only by chickens. At least the moa were invited.

The real endemics in Hawaiʻi are the military, tourism, and the rapid influx of non-local real estate buyers. Since the overthrow and occupation of our kingdom by the Americans in the 19th century, non-Hawaiians have abused these islands. The resulting ills, including housing inequality, food insecurity and environmental degradation, have only worsened in recent years. And somehow the kanaka maoli always seem to bear the brunt of it.

Even our poultry problem can be traced to colonization. As Westerners expanded their operations in the Pacific, they forcefully converted our delicately balanced food systems. Our land, water and labor have been exploited to produce goods for export. Our self-sufficiency is gone and today an estimated 85% of food in Hawaii is imported, including most of the chicken we eat. This left the surplus native moa, forgotten, free to flourish.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for us, the Kanaka. Today, Native Hawaiians make up only 20% of the islands’ population, but we are 50% of the homeless. The army occupies 20% of the territory but, including veterans, represents about 10% of the population. It’s an unsustainable arrangement that has displaced many of our fellow citizens: half of the world’s Kanaka population now lives outside of Hawaii.

Those of us who remain can easily see why others have made a different decision. We can look to the mountains of Oʻahu, where the Navy’s Red Hill Storage Facility has dumped about 180,000 gallons of jet fuel since 1947, including at least 15,600 and as many as 33,000 gallons last year. Thousands of homes were contaminated and thousands of people fell ill. The facility continues to leak directly into Oʻahu’s primary aquifer, and it has knocked Honolulu’s main water source, Halawa Shaft, offline, possibly forever.

But, hundreds of thousands of tourists still flock to Oʻahu every month, depleting Honolulu’s dwindling water supply. There is an illusion that Hawaiʻi relies on tourism to survive. The complicated reality is that most of the companies operating here are internationally owned and the money they make never seems to trickle down. Rather, overtourism exploits our working class; our bleached-out coral reefs, eroded beaches, and trashed hiking trails speak for themselves.

Meanwhile, the median price of a single-family home on Oʻahu hit $1.15 million earlier this year, a 21% jump from the previous year, and Hawaiʻi is already the state with the more expensive to live. But instead of affordable housing, condos continue to receive the green light — including more iwi kupuna (burial sites), no less – to create more homes than the typical Kanaka family could ever afford. These places are for non-locals – who, surprisingly, are among the loudest voices complaining that chickens are hurting the value of their rental properties.

Honestly, we Kanakas don’t care that much about moa. After all, our kupuna — our ancestors — are the ʻaina – Earth. Our love of the country runs deep because we understand our genealogical connection to it. But as housing prices rise and the quality of life declines, it becomes more difficult to stay in our homeland.

Hawaiʻi is not Hawaii without the Hawaiians. So focus on what will keep us here: local, culturally rooted economic stimulation. Food systems repaired. Affordable health care. Affordable housing – possibly a moratorium on home purchases by non-locals. Certainly, the rapid emptying and dismantling of Red Hill.

A fight with the moa in our streets? Not really.

Besides, how are we going to cook our huli huli chicken? The word means “to turn”, as in the flipping of the chicken on the burning Kiawe wood – but also as in the transformation of old systems into new ones, to displace and reject the status quo. Huli is what we need to do if Hawaii is to survive and if our chickens don’t survive the people who brought them here.

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