Ka Papa Loʻi ʻo Kānewai keeps kalo local

Native Hawaiian varieties are intended to ward off biocolonialism and hybridization of the important plant
Manaʻo, an ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi major at UH Mānoa, pulls weeds from the sides of the loʻi to prevent them from stealing nutrients from the kalo.
Manaʻo, an ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi major at UH Mānoa, pulls weeds from the sides of the loʻi to prevent them from stealing nutrients from the kalo.
Hiʻilawe Neves

When it comes to kalo, Ka Papa Loʻi ʻo Kānewai isn’t cultivating plants for store-bought poi.

This cultural garden at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa has a greater purpose, providing cultural lessons as a part of Hawaiʻinuiākea, the only college of indigenous knowledge in a Research I institution in the United States.

“It’s powerful to be this entity,” said Makahiapo Cashman, the garden’s director, who opens the facilities to the public at least once a month, on the first Saturday.

One of the main attractions of this garden is the kalo patch, and about 100 people showed up earlier this month to tend it, a workshop traditionally known as koele, during which people learn how to hehihehi (stomp on), hoʻpuʻupuʻu (crush) and hoʻomaemae (clean) the plants.

“We have about 68 of the 74 of the different native Hawaiian varieties” of kalo, staff member Elenakila Akau said. “People get the opportunity to see the different kalo we have here that you don’t get to see every day. Most of the poi you see in stores is all one (non-Hawaiian) kalo or mixed kalo.”

For Ka Papa Loʻi ʻo Kānewai, there is an ongoing struggle to get funds to support these sorts of educational efforts and to keep the kalo repository sustained, Cashman said. First Saturday work days are supported right now by a Student Activity and Program Fee Board grant through UH, but that’s not a guaranteed funding source.

“When we think of Hāloa as an older sibling, it symbolizes the connection of ʻāina to people, emphasizing familial relationships and the responsibility we have to nurture the environment as we would our own family,” said kalo farmer Ikaikaloha Vares-Young, who regularly attends the workshops at Ka Papa Loʻi ʻo Kānewai. “And, in return, our older sibling will make sure we never go hungry, just like an older sibling would.”

Vares-Young, from Waiheʻe on Oʻahu, grows ʻeleʻele mākoko, piko kea and kāī kalo, which he brought from Kauaʻi. Those are all varieties of kalo native to these islands.

“I don’t believe that GMO-ing our native varieties of kalo is a good thing to do,” Vares-Young said. “Native varieties have been cultivated over multiple generations and have adapted to specific environments. GMOs could threaten the genetic diversity as well as integrity of these varieties. This monopoly raised concerns about biodiversity loss, farmer dependency, and environmental impacts due to increased use of roundup.”

Researchers at UH’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, for example, have experimented with Kalo Hawaiʻi, a Lehua variety found on Maui. The college released a report on these experiments in 2009 documenting how the study of the kalo (taro) genome in Hawai‘i had not always been a magnet for criticism and also documenting ways in which kalo has historical resistance to blight.

“I think the stories, kuleana and names are important,” garden director Cashman said. “This (kalo) was used for medicine. This one was used for ceremonies. So when you start manipulating it, then you take away that opportunity for us to use it ceremonially and use it as it was supposed to be, it’s what we lose.”

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