Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Communication and Appreciating Culture

I have unfortunately neglected writing my blog posts, and the main reason is I've been busy writing for Mapquest's new travel site, Parachute. My secondary reason is I contracted a mean case of the lazies while on Christmas vacation and now I need to kick it into overdrive to get back on track with my writing.

I did want to talk about my last article that I wrote for Parachute, because it directly relates to my current work in progress. While vacationing on Maui, almost every day I passed by the Pu'unene Mill - the last operating sugar mill in the islands. I would have a passing thought, "Oh, that's right. I need to set up an appointment to tour the mill for research." Then the thought would pass with "Next time," and I would move on to other vacation-related thoughts. Like the beach.

Unfortunately, "Next time" may never come for me as earlier this month HC&S announced it was closing the mill and ceasing all sugar operations later this year. One hundred years of industrial and agricultural history is about to end and it was a bitter pill to swallow for me personally. I grew up in a plantation town, with family members who worked the fields and operated the great big machines in the mill, and in a routine way of life that involved my grandmother driving through cane ash and/or dust and planning laundry days around cane burning, harvesting and planting.

I wasn't blind to the inevitability of HC&S closing. It was, after all, the last sugar mill in the islands and much of the C&H sugar that graces my coffee comes from pretty much everywhere else BUT Hawaii right now, soon none of it will be. Global competition was the big killer of Hawaiian sugar, and everyone knew it was just a matter of time, even if most Maui residents didn't want to admit it. But I always thought there was still a few years left in the mill, and sugar may be less profitable, but it was still viable. And there was always the hope that somehow, technology would become available AND affordable to bring the mill into the twenty-first century.

But the mill came to a sudden, grinding halt this January. Outside pressure from environmental groups twisted the knife deep into the pockets of HC&S and A&B Properties and the New Year greeted hundreds of employees with lay-off notices. I can imagine the peripheral businesses wringing their hands in anticipation of lost revenue: the shipping companies that handle the logistics of getting the raw sugar to the refineries, the metal workers and technicians who build or repair the massive machines that allow the mill to run, the restaurants who provide meals for the employees, the clothing and grocery stores that provide necessities to the families of those employees. It's an ugly chain reaction that a small island like Maui cannot just bounce back from in a few weeks or months. It is its own mini recession that takes a year or more to rise out of.

And what did the environmental groups do in response to this eventual economic dive? They threw a party. The employees hadn't even received their notices yet, and sugar cane burning opponents had a shindig. And this was the point where any argument - rational, well-meaning, or otherwise - this group could have given me to support their point of view went into my "I don't give a flying pig's ass" mental file. As a Maui-born resident who has yet been unable to find an affordable means to move back home, I have a very short fuse for people who think they can move to Maui and change its cultural landscape willy-nilly and never mind the impact it has on the people who REALLY call Hawaii home. (Apparently, my aunt has just as short a fuse, as her op-ed here illustrates.) "Oh, we were celebrating the LIVES we saved because the smoke causes asthma." Bitch please. You celebrated a win and used asthma as the mask. Vog from the volcano creates just as much respiratory problems, if not more, than cane smoke. You going to sue the volcano goddess, too?

Cane burning sucked. It screwed up the laundry, it was hard to drive through, it made breathing difficult (I have asthma, but I can say with great certainty it wasn't because of the cane), it polluted the water, and it turned the sky brown. But it was there because sugar was the industry of the islands for over a century, made profitable by foreigners at the expense of the native and immigrant workers. So we lived with it, because it gave us jobs and opened up new avenues for business. And decades later, sugar began to die, and foreign interest dwindled, leaving empty fields ripe for another kind of foreign take-over: wealthy vacation homes.

Pu'unene Mill, courtesy of Mahina Martin
So hundreds of residents have lost, or will eventually lose, their jobs this year and the thought of being jobless (and thus homeless) looms heavy on the horizon. Meanwhile, places like Makena and Ka'anapali are creating exclusive resort communities for rich foreigners while Hawaii's homeless struggle for meaningful work to get a roof over their heads. "A&B and HC&S should be responsible for finding them new jobs" was an argument I saw on Facebook from a burn opponent. Again: Bitch please. Companies HIRE, they don't do job placement. A&B can put out all sorts of fancy PR about how they're helping employees find other employment or offer to lease plots to start their own farms, but that's just the sugar glaze hiding the crappy bread underneath. How are these former employees going to afford these plots, let alone get startup capital to begin farming? Is A&B going to pay for business classes? How about learning a new trade? Highly unlikely. All while land developers salivate at new venues for million-dollar homes and real estate agents draft collateral to attract those who can afford "living the island dream."

These jobless people are local residents with family ties going back generations. Those environmentalists moved to Maui from the mainland, mostly the west coast, and while some may have lived on Maui for 20+ years, their roots are as shallow as their self-interest. It may have been about health and environment when the "Stop Cane Burning" movement began, but in the end it was about stopping a part of Maui's culture in its tracks because it was an inconvenience that marred their version of "island life." Say good bye to the lush green valley folks, because despite what A&B says, it's not going to stay agricultural for long.

"But there are burn opponents who have generational ties to Maui," you argue. Yes, yes there were. And you know what they fought for? A BETTER way to harvest sugar. A BETTER way to manage the land that benefited the people (and by people I mean the employees and their families). A BETTER life for local families (and by local I mean multi-generational). And while hordes of rich people move into the ultra-luxury condos and homes that steadily grow out of the landscape, I sit here in front of my computer on a cold-ass day feeling pretty bitter about that. And coupled with the nostalgic sense of loss with the closing of Pu'unene Mill, I'm feeling a little irritated that "newbies" are re-imagining Maui culture to reflect a Mainland lifestyle.

As the creator of the Maui Built brand so aptly states, "Relax. This Ain't the Mainland."

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