Disaster capitalists target Native lands on Maui

By Will Hodgkinson
August 22, 2023

The destruction from the wildfires still raging on Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) lands in Hawaiʻi continues to worsen. The worst fires broke out in Hawaiʻi and Maui, Hawaiʻi’s largest islands. As of Aug. 22, the death toll has risen to 115. Up to 1,000 people still remain unaccounted for.

As Joe Biden visits, local residents make their point. Maui, Hawai‘i, Aug. 21, 2023.

The direct causes of the fires remain unclear, but new information has come out implicating the privately owned utility Hawaiian Electric, which left its poorly maintained power lines running despite the threat of fire. Preliminary data have identified critical faults in other Hawaiian Electric lines at the sites of the major fires.

Thousands of Kānaka Maoli residents remain unhoused and lack adequate assistance from U.S. settler authorities. Despite the scale of devastation and suffering caused by the fires, both state and federal authorities have failed to provide necessary support.

On Aug. 15, the Biden Administration announced an inadequate “one time” payment of $700 per household affected by the fires. The total disaster relief pledged comes to just $3.8 million, which is a tiny amount, less than one-six-thousandth of the $24 billion Biden requested from Congress a week earlier for the imperialist proxy war in Ukraine.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has pledged only marginally more disaster funding, and its response remains grossly inadequate. This reflects the agency’s infamous track record when responding to disasters that disproportionately affect working-class, Indigenous, and Black communities.

Kānaka Maoli activists lead relief efforts

Without adequate assistance from settler authorities, Kānaka Maoli activists continue to lead relief efforts, providing water, food, and other supplies to survivors.

“People aren’t waiting on FEMA, or even the state and county,” said Professor Kapuaʻala Sproat, Associate Director of the Ka Huli Ao Center for Excellence in Native Hawaiian Law, in an Aug. 18 Democracy Now! interview. “Relief organizations are springing up in people’s homes, in their garages, and supplies are coming in by boat, by plane, by vehicle when the roads are opened.”

In the same interview, Professor Sproat called attention to the disaster capitalists already exploiting the suffering and devastation inflicted by the fires. Mere hours after residents evacuated, some reported getting calls from real estate developers pressuring them to sell their damaged property. “There are realtors and there are others who are making offers to people in their most desperate time of need … People are getting offers on their ancestral homes.”

Although Hawaiʻi’s settler governor, Josh Green, has promised to prevent such land grabs, his state administration has taken no concrete action. Without such action, tens of thousands of Kānaka Maoli residents remain at disproportionate risk of extortion by property developers.

Capitalist real estate markets imposed on Kānaka Maoli lands have already made Hawaiʻi the most expensive place to live out of all the territories ruled from Washington, forcing many Kānaka Maoli to go unhoused on their own lands.

Theft of water reserves

Worsening this situation, corporate interests — such as the West Maui Land Company, Inc. (WML), which has a monopoly on most of Maui’s irrigation infrastructure — are taking advantage of the disaster to secure their theft of water reserves.

While many Kānaka Maoli families lack enough water to bathe, the WML has diverted crucial streams to resorts and luxury developments.

Kānaka Maoli activists and residents have fought against the WML’s water theft, and in 2022, the Maui Water Commission approved a new permitting system that would have allowed Kānaka Maoli residents to allocate water for their needs. The deadline to apply for permits was Aug. 7, 2023, the day before the fires engulfed Maui. The Governor’s Emergency Declaration suspended this process, and the WML wasted no time slashing regulations on water use.

Gov. Green even insinuated that the Kānaka Maoli campaign was to blame for the spread of the fires, claiming “there are still people fighting in our state about giving us [the government] water access.” (Guardian, Aug. 17)

In reality, it was centuries of water theft and cash-crop cultivation — licensed by Hawaiʻi’s settler-colonial regime — that depleted reserves and left Hawaiʻi at risk of fire.

The exploitation of the catastrophe in Hawaiʻi is part of the vicious cycle of disaster capitalism, in which corporate predators take advantage of disasters to continue the very practices of imperialism and settler-colonialism that created the conditions leading to these disasters in the first place.

As Professor Sproat explained, “What’s happening right now epitomizes plantation disaster capitalism, because here we have a handful of incredibly privileged, large landed interests using this terrible tragedy to displace and to push through laws that they were unable to secure when Hawaiʻi’s state water code was in place.”

Speaking on community resistance, Professor Sproat said: “We, as a community, need to circle up. We need to come together, and we need to lean into each other and really look to and embrace the principles that have — like aloha ʻāina, that have enabled us to thrive here in Hawaiʻi for a millennium.”

The extensive damage from this fire in Hawaiʻi is the consequence of over a century of capitalist exploitation since U.S. settlers seized the islands in the late 19th century. The Kānaka Maoli — as well as Indigenous nations in the continental U.S. and worldwide — deserve the solidarity of the world’s working class in their struggle to win liberation from settler-colonialism and imperialism to stamp out these practices.