I lived on Kaua'i, Hawaii, in the early eighties, before Walmart and traffic jams, when the biggest store was Big Save. Kaua'i is the Garden Island, and on the north shore it rains hard at least once a day. When the skies cleared, my mom and I would follow a rusted-out railing to the beach. Here I'd dig around the looping cursive of tree roots imagining the swamps of Dagobah from Star Wars, hunt for crabs on the rocks, or dive for creatures in the tidepools.
The Kaua'i my family moved to was wary of development. Locals seemed to realize that the arrow of "growth" only points one way, that no one ever undoes a big-box-store economy, no one de-develops. After a high-rise hotel went up in the sixties, residents passed an island-wide ordinance that "No building should be made taller than a mature palm tree." Kaua'i adopted a precautionary principle with respect to external development, saying in effect that there needs to be a clear benefit to local culture before anyone messes with paradise.
As such, Kaua'i was a remote place to live, and, like most other transplants back then, my family moved back to the mainland before I started elementary school. Even though it was only five years, living on Kaua'i shaped us. The first lesson I was ever taught was aloha 'aina, a reverence for the land that gets inside you — the same connection to the natural world stressed in ecofeminist literature, the same love for wildness found in deep ecology. That lesson stuck, and led me to major in environmental policy and work for the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund. A love for the island stuck with my family as well and we went back whenever we could.
In the summer of 2012, as a last-gasp effort to get a novel I'd been working on for 10 years out the door, I went back to Kaua'i. The plan was to teach over Skype in New York and Europe first thing in the morning then have the rest of the day to write, hang out with my family, and maybe sneak in some jiujitsu.
I had been training at Clockwork Jiu Jitsu in New York for a few years and at least knew enough not to hurt myself. I discovered that the first gym on the island was Bruno Longman's, a short drive away in the town of Kilauea where I went to Montessori school as a kid.
Bruno welcomed me in and I had the chance to train alongside a half-dozen others who were as nerdy as I was about transitioning from omoplatas or finishing a triangle on someone with an O-Lineman's neck — which was the norm at Bruno's gym. Cyborg Abreu, who would go on to win the world championship the next year, was one of a handful training out of the gym. I recognized another guy from a surf video. I even knew his name: Dustin Barca.
I knew Barca strictly as a pro surfer and hadn't followed his career as an MMA fighter. But after Bruno showed us the techniques of that day and it was time for us to spar, there I was, paired with Barca. Somebody chewed "Good luck" through a mouthguard. Another said something about a cage and I pieced things together.
In jiujitsu you can either play guard or attempt to pass your opponent's guard. One of the beauties of the sport is that the person on his back is often at an advantage — think of an octopus. I pulled guard and tried to keep Barca from passing. He cut down one of my legs with his shin; I imagine that's what it feels like to have your leg pinned under a collapsed mature palm tree. After a few minutes, probably less, he had passed guard and was digging for a collar choke.
For the next month, I heard Barca's name at every bar, restaurant, and surf shop on the island. I joked to a friend in NYC that I was training with the mayor of Kaua'i.
In 2014, I was paging through a surf magazine and saw that Dustin Barca was, in fact, running for mayor of Kaua'i.
Dustin recently related the moment he knew he had to run for mayor of the island:
"I just happened to be in town doing my errands with my son. There was the mayor doing his announcement with the bosses of Dow/BASF/Syngenta/Dupont Pioneer. They were holding his signs and supporting the same mayor that they were suing. I felt so disrespected and disgusted with the corruption that I just walked over and said, 'All you corrupt fuckers. This shit's over. I'm running for mayor already.'"
Kaua'i as I knew it was sugar cane fields — the silver-fringed smell of a cane fire is firmly etched in my mind — and roadside produce. That's mostly gone. Sometime in the nineties, the world's largest agrochemical companies moved in to take advantage of the island's permanent growing season. The genetically modified seed crops they grow are shipped to the mainland, never entering the food supply. There's a common misconception that crops are only genetically modified to make more robust and tastier food — like taking normal boring corn and splicing in the Cool Ranch protein. Not the case. GMO test crops often go to the manufacture of pharmaceuticals and biofuels, not food. The process of genetically engineering plants for pharmaceutical use, pharming, oftentimes means inserting exotic elements into the genetic code — for example, gp120, the glycoprotein that allows viruses to bind to CD4 receptors and enter the cells, has been harvested in GMO corn in the hope of developing a cheap oral vaccine for HIV. Who knows if any of this is going on in Kaua'i, but we're certainly a long way from traditional farming.
Where exactly the test fields are, what exactly these multinational companies are growing, and what quantities of herbicides and pesticides they are using remains a closely guarded secret. Agrochemical companies have defended their right to privacy, arguing that if they disclose the location of their test sites, they will expose themselves to "commercial espionage, vandalism and theft."
In October of 2013 Kaua'i's residents passed a Right to Know ordinance, calling for the agrochemical companies to disclose more information and create buffer zones around schools and hospitals. That same month, Kaua'i Mayor Bernard Carvalho vetoed the ordinance. By November 2013, Kaua'i had rallied to override the mayor's veto. The ordinance was scheduled to go into effect by August 2014. With the threat of disclosure looming, the multinational agrochemical companies stepped in. DuPont's Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc., Syngenta Seeds, Agrigenetics, Inc, (owned by Dow Chemical), and BASF Plant Sciences LP, sued the island of Kaua'i.
Here's where the story gets even more personal. The organization I worked for out of college, Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, stepped in to represent the defendants. Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff put the issue in perspective, "The spectacle of four multibillion-dollar multinational chemical companies suing for the right to continue spraying Kaua'i's residents with acutely toxic chemicals, and to keep what they spray and when they spray it a secret, is shameful."
But Kaua'i lost. On Aug. 25, 2014, Judge Barry Kurren overturned the ordinance, effectively allowing the agrochemical industry on Kaua'i to continue business as usual.
That more or less brings us up to date. Dustin Barca decided to run for mayor to regulate GMO development on the island and promote sustainable agriculture. He took 31% of the popular vote in the primaries and hopes to unseat incumbent candidate Carvalho today in an election that is in some ways a referendum on which Kaua'i future generations will come to know.
As an outsider, I'm not entitled to much of an opinion. I'm nostalgic for sugar cane plantations, which have their own horrible history and were probably no better for the island than multinational agrochemical firms. I'm critical of development, but development brought my family to the north shore in the first place. At the same time, I do feel like this is a turning point and I am certain that beautiful things are worth fighting for. That's why Dustin Barca's decision to run for mayor hit me hard: There was never a moment's hesitation between his impression of the situation on Kaua'i and his decision to act. Watching these events transpire on the island has taught me that aloha 'aina is more than just a love for the land, it's the readiness to fight for it.