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Looking at Land Use Decisions Through Multiple Lenses

In Hawai’i, researchers bring cultural values and climate change scenarios into the mix.

The Hawaiian word for land, ʻāina, literally translates to “that which feeds.” ‘Āina invokes a deep cultural kinship between people and place in Hawai’i, a value made abundantly clear to a team of researchers from the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa and The Natural Capital Project, assessing how climate change and different kinds of local values could be incorporated into land-use decision making in North Kona on Hawaiʻi’s Big Island.

Land-use scenarios
Land-use scenarios under the current and future climate for the pasturelands.

Studies that combine cultural values with other ecosystem services like flood protection, fire risk reduction, or groundwater recharge are rare. Looking to fill this gap, the research team aimed to develop a process that would assess the multiple environmental, economic, and cultural outcomes of land-use and climate change in a way that resonates with local communities. This process could inform an upcoming land-use decision about the future of pasturelands in North Kona, further equipping decision-makers with a diverse set of information.

The team worked closely with Kamehameha Schools, an indigenous Hawaiian educational trust, the State of Hawai’i’s largest private landowner, and one of NatCap’s oldest collaborators. To evaluate future land-use options for the pasturelands, the collaborators identified potential scenarios, including coffee growing, native forest restoration, agroforestry, and continued pasture use.

Typical methods for using cultural ecosystem services weren’t resonating with ancestral communities in Hawai’i (or elsewhere, for that matter), so researcher Pua’ala Pascual from UH Mānoa tried a new approach. Pascual worked with several communities in the archipelago to develop a process and framework to evaluate these cultural ecosystem services from an indigenous perspective. The research team engaged with the indigenous community of Kaʻūpūlehu in North Kona to look at land-use options for the pasturelands through a cultural lens.

Kaʻūpūlehu community members discussed reciprocal relationships to ʻāina, which were classified into broad categories: Ike (knowledge), mana (spirituality), pilina kānaka (social interactions); and ola mau (physical and mental well-being). “It’s not just about surveying people. It’s about having a process that is respectful of the cultures, protocols and traditions of that place,” said NatCap alum (and current UHERO scientist) Leah Bremer about Pascual’s strategy.

Kekaulike Tomich (Kaʻūpulehu dry forest restoration project) and Reko Libby (UH Botany) monitor dry forest regeneration.
Kekaulike Tomich (Kaʻūpulehu dry forest restoration project) and Reko Libby (UH Botany) monitor dry forest regeneration.

Combining cultural values with other ecosystem services like groundwater recharge and biodiversity proved crucial. In particular, the research illuminated the strong cultural value of pastureland. “Pastureland isn’t typically seen to have high economic or environmental benefits, but the heritage value here is huge,” explained Bremer. Looking at economic value alone, the analysis might point to coffee, a land-use choice that doesn’t have local cultural value. If you’re focused only on biodiversity value, restoration may be the choice, but it comes at high economic cost. Agroforestry, on the other hand, provides an opportunity to balance multiple values, including culture, environment, and economy. A comprehensive approach strengthens the toolkit of decision-makers, leading to a more informed outcome.

Another key factor in the research was climate change — the team incorporated different climate scenarios into the pasturelands evaluation.

“Climate change is not something that’s going to happen far in the future; it has already started impacting these areas and will continue to do so,” said NatCap’s Lisa Mandle. “Especially when thinking about decisions that will have long-lasting impacts, exploring climate change scenarios is crucial.”

The research shows that climate change will further exacerbate existing threats, underlining the links between people and climate. A community’s cultural connections can often strengthen resilience to climate change. Values such as attachment to place, maintenance of social networks, and local ecological knowledge all contribute to a stronger cultural web that can adapt to a changing climate. In particular, the Kaʻūpūlehu community highly values its’ responsibility to future generations. “When we describe ourselves as the child of the land, we have every obligation to the land that we do to our Tūtū [grandparent]…” one community member said.

The results of this study provide a framework for land managers around the world, emphasizing a holistic approach to ecosystem services analyses. Including climate change scenarios with other diverse values provides a practical approach for long-term decision-making. Cultural ecosystem services, when incorporated early on, can highlight the priorities and values of a place, elevating the entire analysis.

The team recently published its work, “Bringing multiple values to the table: assessing future land-use and climate change in North Kona, Hawai’i” in Ecology and Society. The work was part of a larger project of the National Science Foundation Coastal Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability (NSF Coastal SEES) led by Tamara Ticktin of the University of Hawai’i at Manoa botany department. The team included NatCap’s Lisa Mandle, Leah Bremer from the University of Hawaiʻi Economic Research Organization and the Water Resources Research Center, UH Mānoa collaborators Puaʻala Pascual, Heather McMillen, Tamara Ticktin, Clay Trauernicht, Kimberly Burnett, Christopher Wada and others. Read more on the project in this University of Hawai’i story and Leah Bremer’s UHERO blog post.

Sarah Cafasso is the Communications Manager at the Natural Capital Project

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