Demonizing “big landowners and developers” is an easy and simple track to fall into, and to a large extent in Hawaii, one that is often but not always deserved.
Historically, our “big landowners” are the descendants of missionaries who came to the islands to do good, and as the saying goes, “did very well.”
Many residents, descendants of plantation workers reminisce fondly about those “plantation days” with parades and festivals to commemorate the fond memories of the plantation camps (segregated by race), company stores, medical facilities, churches and schools.
Kauai’s largest hospital and our community college are both a result of the largess of Grove Farm Company. Our island’s first shopping mall and many of our largest hotels, golf courses and residential housing projects are also a result of Grove Farm Company developments. Almost all of the developable land in and around Lihue and much of Koloa/Poipu is owned by Grove Farm Company, which owns over 38,000 acres of Kauai land.
The vast sugar plantations that once dominated every island are now gone, replaced primarily by cattle ranching and, on Kauai, GMO research and seed production. Few, if any, of the major landowners are actual agricultural enterprises, but rather they are simply real estate land-banks, managing land assets until they are ripe for development into hotels, shopping centers and high-end homes (building the requisite minimum number in the affordable category).
In actuality, many of these large plantations, including Grove Farm Company, were originally created as speculative real estate ventures, with the very first owners in 1850 purchasing the land and then “flipping” it and making exorbitant profits.
According to http://www.grovefarm.com/about-us “Following the Great Mahele (the Hawaiian land redistribution act that allowed non-natives to purchase royal lands), Warren Goodale became the first owner in 1850. He immediately sold the land to James Marshall for $3,000, who in turn, sold it to Judge Herman Wireman for $8,000 in 1856.”
In addition to “running the plantation,” it is no secret that the large landowners have historically also “ran the government.”
According to HawaiiHistory.org: Their economic power translated into political power as well, and politics and business in the Islands continue an intricate cross-pollination. Edward P. Dole, Attorney General of Hawai‘i, wrote in 1903: “There is a government in this Territory which is centralized to an extent unknown in the United States…”
On Kauai, Grove Farm’s George Norton Wilcox, who took over Grove Farm operations in 1864, was deemed a “power in Hawaiian politics.”
The trend of a handful of large landowners and businessmen controlling both the economic and political systems throughout Hawaii continued until the 1949 rise of labor unions led to Democrats etching out their first political victories in 1954, then finally gaining majority control in 1962.
While the organizing skills and persistence of labor unions drove many improvements to working conditions and wages, it did not come without a price. In 1924, after decades of harsh treatment and low wages, during the early years of the labor struggle, 20 striking Filipino plantation workers were killed by local armed sheriffs and strike-breakers in what was called the Hanapepe Massacre.
Today, despite the “revolution of 1954” and the many tangible gains that resulted from the leadership of that era, the land and money power structure in Hawaii remains largely unchanged. The labels and the political parties have “flipped” from Republican to Democrat, but the underlying power structure remains controlled by large landowners and development interests. On Kauai and throughout the state, the large landowners benefit from having “their people” elected and appointed to key positions of power and influence, effectively still running the show in Hawaii, both politically and economically.
It doesn’t have to be this way. If the broader community organizes, engages the system, and takes ownership of their government, we could have a political and economic system that is driven by and for the people, and not simply for the profits of a few.
Gary Hooser formerly served in the state Senate, where he was a majority leader. He also served for eight years on the Kauai County Council and was the former director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control during the administration of Gov. Neal Abercrombie. He serves presently in a volunteer capacity as board president of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action (HAPA) and is the volunteer executive director of the Pono Hawaii Initiative.