At 9 am on an overcast morning in paradise, hundreds of protesters gathered in traditional Hawaiian chant and prayer. Upon hearing the sound of the conch shell, known here as P?, the protesters followed a group of women towards Monsanto’s grounds.
“A’ole GMO,” cried the mothers as they marched alongside Monsanto’s cornfields, located only feet from their homes on Molokai, one of the smallest of Hawaii’s main islands. In a tiny, tropical corner of the Pacific that has warded off tourism and development, Monsanto’s fields are one of only a few corporate entities that separates the bare terrain of the mountains and oceans.
This spirited march was the last of a series of protests on the five Hawaiian islands that Monsanto and other biotech companies have turned into the world’s ground zero for chemical testing and food engineering. Hawaii is currently at the epicenter of the debate over genetically modified organisms, generally shortened to GMOs. Because Hawaii is geographically isolated from the broader public, it is an ideal location for conducting chemical experiments. The island chain’s climate and abundant natural resources have lured five of the world’s largest biotech chemical corporations: Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont Pioneer and BASF. In the past 20 years, these chemical companies have performed over 5,000 open-field-test experiments of pesticide-resistant crops on an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 acres of Hawaiian land without any disclosure, making the place and its people a guinea pig for biotech engineering.
The presence of these corporations has propelled one of the largest movement mobilizations in Hawaii in decades. Similar to the environmental and land sovereignty protests in Canada and the continental United States, the movement is influenced by indigenous culture.
“All of the resources that our kapuna [elders] gave to us, we need to take care of now for the next generation,” said Walter Ritte, a Hawaii activist, speaking in part in the Hawaiian indigenous language.
“That is our kuleana [responsibility]. That is everybody’s kuleana.”
In Hawaiian indigenous culture, the very idea of GMOs is effectively sacrilegious.
“For Hawaii’s indigenous peoples, the concepts underlying genetic manipulation of life forms are offensive and contrary to the cultural values of aloha ‘? mso-bidi-font-family:Verdana”>” wrote Mililani B. Strask, a native Hawaiian attorney.
Monsanto has a long history of making chemicals that bring about devastation. The company participated in the Manhattan Project to help produce the atomic bomb during World War II. It developed the herbicide “Agent Orange” used by U.S. military forces during the Vietnam War, which caused an estimated half-million birth deformities. Most recently, Monsanto has driven thousands of farmers in India to take their own lives, often by drinking chemical insecticide, after the high cost of the company’s seeds forced them into unpayable debt.
The impacts of chemical testing and GMOs are immediate — and, in the long-term, could prove deadly. In Hawaii, Monsanto and other biotech corporations have sprayed over 70 different chemicals during field tests of genetically engineered crops, more chemical testing than in any other place in the world. Human studies have not been conducted on GMO foods, but animal experiments show that genetically modified foods lead to pre-cancerous cell growth, infertility, and severe damage to the kidneys, liver and large intestines. Additionally, the health risks of chemical herbicides sprayed onto GMO crops cause hormone disruption, cancer, neurological disorders and birth defects. In Hawaii, some open-field testing sites are near homes and schools. Prematurity, adult on-set diabetes and cancer rates have significantly increased in Hawaii in the last ten years. Many residents fear chemical drift is poisoning them.
Monsanto’s agricultural procedures also enable the practice of monocropping, which contributes to environmental degradation, especially on an island like Hawaii. Monocropping is an agricultural practice where one crop is repeatedly planted in the same spot, a system that strips the soil of its nutrients and drives farmers to use a herbicide called Roundup, which is linked to infertility. Farmers are also forced to use pesticides and fertilizers that cause climate change and reef damage, and that decrease the biodiversity of Hawaii.
Food sovereignty as resistance
At the first of the series of marches against GMOs, organizers planted coconut trees in Haleiwa, a community on the north shore of Oahu Island. In the movement, protesting and acting as caretakers of the land are no longer viewed as separate actions, particularly in a region where Monsanto is leasing more than 1,000 acres of prime agricultural soil.
During the march, people chanted and held signs declaring, “Aloha ‘?ina: De-occupy Hawaii.”
The phrase aloha ‘?ina is regularly seen and heard at anti-GMO protests. Today the words are defined as “love of the land,” but the phrase has also signified “love for the country.” Historically, it was commonly used by individuals and groups fighting for the restoration of the independent Hawaiian nation, and it is now frequently deployed at anti-GMO protests when people speak of Hawaiian sovereignty and independence.
After the protest, marchers gathered in Haleiwa Beach Park, where they performed speeches, music, spoken-word poetry and dance while sharing free locally grown food. The strategy of connecting with the land was also a feature of the subsequent protest on the Big Island, where people planted taro before the march, and also at the state capitol rally, where hundreds participated in the traditional process of pounding taro to make poi, a Polynesian staple food.
The import economy is a new reality for Hawaii, one directly tied to the imposition of modern food practices on the island. Ancient Hawaii operated within the Ahupua’a system, a communal model of distributing land and work, which allowed the islands to be entirely self-sufficient.
“Private land ownership was unknown, and public, common use of the ahupua’a resources demanded that boundaries be drawn to include sufficient land for residence and cultivation, freshwater sources, shoreline and open ocean access,” explained Carol Silva, an historian and Hawaiian language professor.
Inspired by the Ahupua’a model, the food sovereignty movement is building an organic local system that fosters the connections between communities and their food — a way of resisting GMOs while simultaneously creating alternatives.
The decline of the Ahupua’a system didn’t only set Hawaii on the path away from food sovereignty; it also destroyed the political independence of the now-U.S. state. And indeed, when protesters chant “aloha ‘?ina” at anti-GMO marches, they are alluding to the fact that this fight isn’t only over competing visions of land use and food creation. It’s also a battle for the islands’ political sovereignty.
Historically, foreign corporate interests have repeatedly taken control of Hawaii — and have exploited and mistreated the land and its people in the process.
“It’s a systemic problem and the GMO issue just happens to be at the forefront of public debate at the moment,” said Keoni Lee of