So I’m glad to see that this weekend we all got together and straightened out that whole cane burning thing. We’re all good, right? Right?
Tell that to the woman who (allegedly) had to to endure rock throwing and yelling because she accidentally went to the wrong cane burning rally on Saturday. She had wanted to stand with about 80 other people and wave signs protesting the practice of burning cane but strayed unknowingly into a cane burning support rally held by about 200 people who work at the Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar mill.
Hell of a thing for us to fight over, you know. Seriously, the ghosts (if there are such things) of Sanford Dole and Lorrin Thurston must be laughing their spectral asses off at our foolishness.
Tell me the harsh words and mistrust of transplants and wanton use of the term “haole” is over something more important than a giant corporation burning sugar–a substance every doctor worth his or her MD says we Americans consume far too much of–in the field because it can’t bring itself to enter the 21st century.
Oh, yes, I forgot: 800 jobs are at stake. The papers were filled with that reminder over the weekend. It’s quite a bludgeon used to whack people who dare to mention in public that cane smoke (like all smoke) aggravates asthma and other such respiratory maladies. So a 19th century harvesting practice that pollutes the air and causes thousands of people discomfort (Stop Cane Burning organizer Karen Chun recently handed HC&S General Manager Rick Volner an anti-cane burning petition signed by more than 8,000 residents) must continue so that 800 people can keep their jobs.
Yes, I’m being hyperbolic. If jobs were truly the issue in this fight, then most people on the island would demand that HC&S shutter their mill as fast as possible so that the company’s owner, Alexander & Baldwin, could start work immediately on securing the necessary permits and zoning changes so that they could commence commercial and residential development on all of their 37,000 acres. That, I imagine, would create a few more than 800 jobs.
So the whole thing is over just the one mill and its 800 workers, and its union representatives (that would be the ILWU) are trying to make this bigger than it actually is. The problem is that they’re using tactics that are making the fight a lot more visceral. Here’s a quote from Charles Jennings, who is identified as an HC&S retiree, that appeared in this Sept. 29 Maui Now post:
To be honest with you, it’s kind of ridiculous–people come here and try to stop a lifestyle here on the island… If those people complain about burning cane–if they can support 800 workers–then they have a right to speak; but my point is who are they to say how to run the lifestyle of the island? It’s a community… They come and try to tell a lot of people what to do. To me they’re ridiculous.
This is, of course, silly. Cane smoke burns the lungs and throats of kama‘aina as well as malahini (indeed, MauiTime’s Sept. 27, 2012 cover story “Feeling the Burn” included at least one official complaint against cane burning written by a woman born on Maui). But the argument is so cartoonishly insulting that it’s actually funny. The burning of cane in the fields represents “the lifestyle of the island” that must be defended from people who “come here” (read: haoles).
A little history is in order. Sugar, Wikipedia tell us, came to Hawaii not quite 1,500 years ago. Polynesians brought it with them when they discovered the islands, and they began growing it, although in small quantities–nothing approaching the big plantations that swallowed up the islands in the 19th century. No, those plantations–of which the HC&S operation in Puunene is the last–were a gift of sorts from the king of the haoles, the American missionary.
In 1835, Ladd & Co. (the founders of which were all born in America) opened the first true sugar plantation in Hawaii. Since then, residents and tourists alike have had to peer at the islands’ natural beauty through a haze of cane smoke.
Make no mistake: plantations like HC&S provide jobs, sure, but their interests have historically lay with the first haoles–those Americans who came to Hawaii and imposed their narrow economic interests on the people who already lived here. To identify the vast clouds of cane smoke that plague Maui with the island’s “lifestyle” is to make a mockery of Hawaii history.
If the debate is over the future of the 800 people who currently work at the HC&S mill, then let’s have that debate. They did not choose their work because it would harm others, and the environmental justice brought about by the elimination of cane burning should not trample them. But the days of clinging to a filthy harvesting practice that was imposed by outsiders and involves a food none of us need anyway must end. It’s gone on too long as it is.
Photo: Sharesa McDaniel