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Hawaiian communities restore Indigenous conservation, from mountains to sea

Kauai, Hawaii, USA. Image by Karsten Winegeart via Unsplash.

Kauai, Hawaii, USA. Image by Karsten Winegeart via Unsplash.

  • In Hawai’i, an Indigenous stewardship and conservation system known as ahupua’a is slowly being revived on a mountain-to-sea scale in partnership with U.S. government agencies.
  • Three Indigenous communities that have successfully reintroduced the ahupua’a system are seeing some conservation successes, such as a 310% increase in the biomass of surgeonfish and an increase in the Bluespine unicornfish (Naso unicornis) population.
  • The inclusion of Indigenous Hawaiian conservation, social and spiritual values, like Aloha kekahi i kekahi, have been key to building these conservation areas and forming better working relations with the government.

Across Hawai’i’s sprawling islands of towering tree ferns in the wet mountains to the night-blooming maiapilo flower on the coasts, down to the vibrant lionfish in the seas, an Indigenous stewardship and conservation system, known as ahupua’a, is being revived. The traditional system divides the islands into long wedges running from the mountaintops down into the ocean and are the subject of a new report written by leaders from three communities that have successfully restored the Indigenous practice.

“They [ahupuaʻa] are relics of our ancient past, but they’re encoded in our land use and recordation system even until today,” says Hannah Kihalani Springer, one of the authors of the report and an ʻŌiwi (Indigenous Hawaiian) kūpuna (elder). She lives in the ahupua’a of Kaʻūpūlehu on the island of Hawaiʻi, within a 5-mile radius of where her ancestors have for hundreds of years.

Local communities still recognize and live within these Indigenous ancestral territories today. But the state and U.S. government don’t divide land the same way. Instead, they grant private land ownership and manage habitats in isolation from one another with different agencies looking over various aquatic and terrestrial areas. This limits Indigenous people’s ability to live and care for the land in their traditional ways, ecologist Kawika Winter of the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology and lead author of the paper tells Mongabay.

Now, after decades of working together to restore their diverse Indigenous land and resource stewardship systems, some communities are seeing their persistence pay off. Their recent report published in Ecology and Society outlines the pathways of three Hawaiian communities, Hāʻena on the island of Kauaʻi, Heʻeia on the island of Oʻahu and Kaʻūpūlehu on the island of Hawaiʻi, who have seen success in navigating American bureaucracy and restoring Indigenous stewardship on a mountain-to-sea scale.

Manoa Falls Trail. Image by Jeremy Thompson via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
Manoa Falls Trail in in Honolulu, Hawai’i. Image by Jeremy Thompson via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

“I think this paper captures some key projects in our state that really are on the edge of leading this trend in Hawai’i,” says Kevin Chang, a colleague of the authors who did not work on this paper and the executive director of the Hawaiian nonprofit KUA, a member of the Indigenous People’ and Community Conserved Areas and Territories Consortium (ICCA). “Although, I think they’re part of a bigger movement of communities.”

But these three communities have embraced co-management with the U.S. government, an entity which many Indigenous Hawaiian advocates see as working against their ancestral and territorial traditions ever since the U.S. overthrew their kingdom in 1893, says Winter.

Each of the ahupuaʻa hold multiple formally recognized Indigenous and community conserved areas (ICCAs). While ICCAs can exist without formal government recognition, the report focuses on those where communities co-manage resources with government and private landowners, allowing them to leverage the rights and resources previously taken from them.

“Don’t let the sins of the system get in the way of you figuring out how to get the system to actually work for you,” says Winter.

Read more: Reviving an ancient way of aquaculture at Hawaii’s Heʻeia fishpond

Success in the mountains and seas

Contrary to independent scientific papers, the findings of this self-report are from the authors’ own experiences within their communities. All seven authors are Indigenous or local community leaders who have worked in these ahupua’acommunity efforts to restore Indigenous stewardship for decades to generations. Together, they wove knowledge from direct experience, oral histories, archival records, their previous academic research and, ultimately, from generations of connection to the land.

(A) is a schematic diagram of moku (region) and ahupuaʻa (communities) documented from the island of Kauaʻi with (B) modeling used to depict how this looked on the ground using the moku of Haleleʻa as an example. Image by Winter et al. 2020.
(A) is a schematic diagram of moku (region) and ahupuaʻa (communities) documented from the island of Kauaʻi with (B) modeling used to depict how this looked on the ground using the moku of Haleleʻa as an example. Image by Winter et al. 2020.

In Heʻeia, the community worked to instate a collaboratively managed “meta-ICCA,” known as the Heʻeia National Estuarine Research Reserve. The reserve melds the management of four individual ICCAs, in the mountains, coast and ocean to create the traditional ahupua’a mountain to scale zoning. This is done in partnership with NOAA, the Hawai’i Department of Land and Natural Resources and the Hawai’i Community Development Authority.

“That idea of creating lots of small ones [ICCAs] in different ways and then finding a way to bring those all together to create a meta-ICCA [one huge ICCA], I think is a really brilliant approach,” says Kim Sanders, the adviser for coastal, marine and island environments at the ICCA Consortium, who was not involved with this paper.

Around the world and in Hawai’i, each ICCA has been born out of a unique pathway to navigating different bureaucratic obstacles. “There’s no cookie-cutter approach to how you do these things,” says Sanders.

For example, in 2015, the community in Hāʻena established the first fully functional community-based subsistence fishing area in the world as an ICCA. A 2021 five-year study of Hawai’i’s aquatic resources and coral showed improvements since 2015. The report indicated that the richness and abundance of native fishes important to the Hāʻena community for food, like nenue, or chub (of several Kyphosus species), and kala, or Bluespine unicornfish (Naso unicornis), had increased inside the protected area.

The Kaʻūpūlehu Marine Reserve ICCA, after its creation in 2016, established a 10-year ban on the harvesting of any aquatic life, to let resources “rest” and replenish. And it showed positive results not long after. Four years after its designation, The Nature Conservancy’s report showed a 310% increase in the biomass of surgeonfish in the reserve, as well as a rise in other fish important to the local community. In 2022, the state identified Kaʻūpūlehu as a critical area for coral reef restoration.

School of Pacific Chub / nenue (Kyphosus sandwicensis) in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. A yellow one is regarded as “queen” of the school. Image by Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).
School of Pacific Chub / nenue (Kyphosus sandwicensis) in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. A yellow one is regarded as “queen” of the school. Image by Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

The successful establishment of Hāʻena and Kaʻūpūlehu ICCAs has increased enthusiasm for Indigenous conservation initiatives locally and internationally. Hāʻena won the United Nations Equator Prize for innovative conservation and climate initiatives in 2019, together with the ICCA of Moʻomomi on Molokaʻi.

“We’re [Hawai’i is] definitely showing the world how it can be done,” says Winter. “How do you embrace the culture of conservation that exists within Indigenous [communities] and blow that up and say, ‘This is the way we need to do it’?”

Aloha guides relationships

Despite the differences in these communities’ paths, the authors outline common themes underlying their successes. Foremost, they recognize a set of values that all three of these communities live by, based on the ʻŌiwi belief system. Nohopapa emphasizes these communities’ dedication to their ancestral lands and the intergenerational roles that sustain them, including honoring elders as keepers of wisdom on natural resources and stewardship.

“Taking care of the ocean,” rather than “taking from the ocean” is another key principle grounded in harvesting with care for the ecosystem that has led to restrictions on explicitly extractive gear like lay nets and spear guns, catch limits on key species like lobster and limpets and Kaʻūpūlehu’s temporary halt on harvesting marine resources altogether.

Aloha kekahi i kekahi can be roughly translated as mutual respect, which helped relations with U.S. government officials. ʻŌiwi elder, Springer, of Kaʻūpūlehu, has seen this apply when dealing with a federal dredging permit posed by the Army Corps of Engineers on the island of Hawai’i. “Love each other from one to another, first of all, and then resolution of whatever the debate of the day is,” says Springer. “That’s easier said than done. I assure you.”

The yellow Kaua‘ian ‘Amakihi is a native Hawaiian forest bird. The ‘Amakihi has evolved a slightly curved bill, different from its ancestral finch. Photo credit: Lucas Behnke.

“Aloha kekahi i kekahi, to me, is the most important thing,” says Springer.Spiritual practice, not necessarily religiosity, is an important part of the work that we do. We enjoy the act of devotion. We understand the value of collective intelligence and sentiment focused on stated goals. That is like the high tide that makes a modest swell on the ocean a remarkable thing to behold. It’s not often recorded in the scientific literature, except as perhaps an anthropologic curiosity. But for us, it’s not a curiosity. It’s a practice. And it’s happening now.”

For these communities’ success, compromising with the government has been key, says Winter.

“There’s definitely a lot of people who say, ‘We’ve got to overthrow a system.’ And I support people who say that,” says Winter. “But maybe let’s consider this: Let’s figure out how to get this giant to lift some boulders for us. So we can restore a fish pond and feed our people again. This isn’t the end. It’s a step forward on the path.”

Winter sees their work contributing to a larger movement for Indigenous stewardship, locally and internationally. He hopes to use this science and scholarship to build bridges between the worlds of Indigenous knowledge and politics, showing the value of what communities already know, “the scientific truth that humans and nature aren’t separate from each other,” says Winter.



Winter, K., Vaughan, M., Kurashima, N., Wann, L., Cadiz, E., Kawelo, A. H., … Springer, H. (2023). Indigenous stewardship through novel approaches to collaborative management in Hawaiʻi. Ecology and Society, 28(1). doi:10.5751/es-13662-280126

Rodgers, K., Graham, A., Han, J., Stefanak, M., Stender, Y., Tsang, A., … Stamoulis, K. (2021). 2016-2020 Five Year Efficacy Study of the Management Regulations within the Community Based Subsistence Fishing Area of Hā‘ena,. Retrieved from Coral Reef Assessment and Monitoring Program Hawai’i website:

Banner image: Kauai, Hawaii, USA. Image by Karsten Winegeart via Unsplash.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: We look at Indigenous peoples’ long relationship with, and stewardship of, marine environments through two stories of aquaculture practice in New Zealand and Canada. Listen here:

By cultivating seaweed, Indigenous communities restore connection to the ocean

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