Native Intelligence: O‘ahu

Healing the Waters

Story by Natalie Schack. Photos by Linny Morris.

It was the last koa tree in the forest, and it was barely hanging on. Dwarfed by water-hogging albizia trees and strangled by rose apple, it had struggled for the better part of a century. When the team from nonprofit Ho‘oulu ‘Āina found “Mama Koa” a decade ago, they had just started restoring this watershed in O‘ahu’s Kalihi valley. Government foresters pressured them to use pesticides, but they resisted; they were determined to use native knowledge to revive a native forest.

They cut back the canopy, giving Mama Koa light and space. Before new trees could be planted, “thousands of koa volunteered themselves,” says Ho‘oulu ‘Āina’s youth coordinator, Scotty Garlough. New sprouts were growing on their own. The government foresters couldn’t believe it. “They looked at us,” says Garlough, “and said ‘We’ve never seen that.’”

A project under the umbrella of the non-profit Kokua Kalihi Valley, Ho‘oulu ‘Āina (“to grow the land”) is a hundred-acre restoration area deep in Kalihi, where the roads narrow and forest canopy closes. The government leased the land to Kokua Kalihi Valley with the aim of protecting watershed. While native plants help recharge the aquifer, invasive species like albizia deplete it. The objective: Remove foreign trees and repopulate with natives—without destroying the forest, thereby protecting the water beneath.

“We’re trying to heal the land,” Garlough explains. “But how do we do it in a pono [proper] way?” The answer was by involving the community in the forest’s revival. Now, halfway through a twenty-year lease, organic gardens border the property, with fresh produce going to Kalihi’s elderly homes and farmers markets, and medicinal herbs delivered to the Kokua Kalihi Valley health clinic. Workdays attract volunteers by the hundreds, gathering to clear vegetation from ancient Hawaiian stonework, remove invasive plants, collect and prepare wholesome food. The values of mālama (caring) and pono guide how Ho‘oulu ‘Āina members and volunteers nurture the valley—and one another.

Rebuilding a forest isn’t easy; an entire watershed even less so. “What is our whole thing? Health, right?” says Garlough. “By just trying to bring back water, we can heal everything.”