The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Chickens have gone crazy in Hawaiʻi. But there’s a way bigger problem.

A feral chicken, shown on the island of Kauaʻi in Hawaiʻi in 2018. (Jon G. Fuller; Jr./VWPics via AP Images)
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Keoni DeFranco is a Native Hawaiian writer, activist and organizer with Oahu Water Protectors.

OʻAHU — Fifteen-hundred years ago, the first canoes landed on the shores of our islands. Our Polynesian voyaging ancestors stepped out onto the sands of Hawaiʻi … and so did their chickens.

The animals — moa, as we Native Hawaiians know them — had been domesticated and transported in the voyagers’ double-hulled vessels, along with pigs, dogs and canoe crops such as kalo (taro), ʻulu (breadfruit) and ʻuala (sweet potato).

Over the following centuries, the Native Hawaiians, or kanaka maoli, developed a complex, regenerative and self-sufficient agricultural system in their new home, and the moa proliferated. Now, they’ve proliferated a bit too much for some, multiplying into our streets and our yards. So many feral chickens wander Hawaiʻi, dropping waste and crowing at all hours that the government recently began a pilot program to capture them. The high cost — about $100 per caught bird — drew national attention.

It’s true our islands are overrun — but not just by chickens. At least the moa were invited.

The real endemics in Hawaiʻi are the military, the tourism and the rapid influx of nonlocal property buyers. Beginning with the overthrow and occupation of our kingdom by Americans in the 19th century, non-Hawaiians have abused these islands. The resulting pains, including housing inequity, food insecurity and environmental degradation, have only grown sharper in recent years. And somehow, kanaka maoli always seem to bear the brunt.

Even our poultry problem can be traced to colonization. As Westerners expanded operations in the Pacific, they forcefully converted our delicately balanced food systems. Our land, water and labor were exploited to produce goods for export. Our self-sufficiency disappeared, and today, an estimated 85 percent of food in Hawaiʻi is imported — including most of the chicken we eat. That has left the surplus native moa, forgotten, free to flourish.

Sadly, the same can’t be said of us kanaka. Today, Native Hawaiians make up only 20 percent of the islands’ population, yet we are 50 percent of the homeless. The military occupies 20 percent of the land but, including veterans, accounts for about 10 percent of the population. It’s an unsustainable arrangement that has displaced many of our people: Half the global kanaka population now live outside Hawaiʻi.

Those of us who remain can easily see why others made a different decision. We can look toward Oʻahu’s mountains, where the Navy’s Red Hill storage facility has spilled an estimated 180,000 gallons of jet fuel since 1947, including at least 15,600 and up to 33,000 gallons last year. Thousands of homes were contaminated, and thousands of people became ill. The facility continues to leak directly into Oʻahu’s primary aquifer, and it has taken Honolulu’s main water source, Halawa Shaft, offline — possibly forever.

But, hundreds of thousands of tourists each month still pour into Oʻahu, draining Honolulu’s dwindling water supply. There’s an illusion that Hawaiʻi relies on tourism to survive. The complicated reality is that most of the corporations operating here are internationally owned, and the money they earn never seems to trickle down. Overtourism instead exploits our working class; our bleached coral reefs, eroding beaches and trashed hiking trails speak for themselves.

Meanwhile, the median price of a single-family home on Oʻahu hit $1.15 million earlier this year, a 21 percent jump from a year earlier, and Hawai’i is already the most expensive state to live in. But instead of affordable housing, condos continue to be greenlighted — including over iwi kupuna (burial sites), no less — to create more homes the typical kanaka family could never afford. These places are for the nonlocals — who, surprise, are some of the loudest voices complaining about chickens harming the value of their rental properties.

Honestly, we kanaka don’t mind the moa so much. After all, our kupuna — our ancestors — are the ʻaina — the land. Our love of country runs deep because we understand our genealogical connection to it. But as housing prices rise and quality of life falls, it gets harder to stay in our motherland.

Hawaiʻi is not Hawaiʻi without Hawaiians. So focus on what will keep us here: local, culturally rooted economic stimulus. Repaired food systems. Affordable health care. Affordable housing — maybe a moratorium of home purchases by nonlocals. Certainly, the speedy defueling and decommissioning of Red Hill.

A tussle with the moa in our streets? Not so much.

Besides, how else will we cook our huli huli chicken? The word means “to turn,” as in the turning of the chicken over burning kiawe wood — but also as in the turning of old systems into new ones, of shifting and rejecting the status quo. Huli is what we must do if Hawaiʻi is to survive and if our chickens aren’t to outlast the people who brought them here.