LIHU‘E — Instead of luxury homes, large-scale hotels and numerous beachfront vacation properties, sugar cane fields dominated Kaua‘i’s landscape 50 years ago.
In fact, sugar cane production was the source of nearly half of the island’s income, according to Kaua‘i: Hawai‘i’s Garden Island Guide Book, published in 1951.
“It is the island’s top industry, providing year-round employment for some 13,000 people … Kaua‘i’s cane producers have improved their operations to become one of the most highly mechanized agricultural areas of the world,” the book says.
Not only were there eight sugar cane plantations at the time — only one of which is still in operation today — there were 6,000 acres of pineapple grown on Kaua‘i, making it the second largest profit generator for the island.
“In the sugar plantation eras, they lived in a different manner,” said Kaua‘i Museum Curator Chris Faye.
Today we live in very large homes with four or five cars to a family, she said. But before statehood, Kaua‘i was much more self-sufficient, with families sharing modest homes and working together where they lived.
Before the island shifted gears in the 1970s to focus on the now multi-billion dollar tourism industry, Coco Palms was one of the few places people could stay when visiting Kaua‘i 50 years ago, Faye said.
In addition, the North Shore was extremely rural, with the exception of the Kilauea Sugar Plantation. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the subsidiary of a Denver-based oil and gas company bought Princeville Ranch and developed the area into a resort.
There were rice and taro farms in Hanalei and it took “a long time to get out there” with the road “zig-zagging all over the place,” Faye said.
The shift away from agriculture created “enormous” changes over the past 50 years, she said.
“A long time ago, in an agricultural society, the beaches were considered basically wastelands and real estate wasn’t even a business,” she said.
Now, shoreline properties are highly sought after, and not only did the visitor industry become the island’s breadwinner in recent decades, but real estate blossomed, becoming “an issue for the island,” said Sue Kanoho, executive director for the Kaua‘i Visitors Bureau.
With the explosion of the real estate and visitor industries, the island developed beyond what many have called sustainable levels, where not only the local economy is currently feeling the impact, the environment is as well.
“Some of the highest erosion rates are related to man-made interruptions in sand transport along the shore,” writes Jim O’Connell, a coastal geologist for the University of Hawai‘i Sea Grant on Kaua‘i, in a document pertaining to shoreline setbacks.
Approximately 72 percent of the sandy shores of Kaua‘i are eroding, while approximately 28 percent are accreting (building up sand), according to a study conducted by the University of Hawaii’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology.
“We’ve overbuilt to a point where we’re almost killing the quality that attracts people to come to Kaua‘i,” said Glenn Hontz, coordinator and director of the Food Industry Program at Kaua‘i Community College. “Luxury homes, excessive buildings, all of that is wonderful to an extent, but we’ve extended beyond a reasonable level.”
Though some might ponder what it would be like to return to plantation days, Kanoho said that even though many people felt agriculture was very important to the island, the labor issues were challenging and costly.
“So many variables were starting to edge in so it was a labor issue,” she said regarding the mid-1980s transition when plantations started fade away. “Not everyone was used to working in a field and Third World countries could do the work cheaper and support from the federal government started to dry up.”
She remembers watching the Lihu‘e Plantation Company convoy as they drove down Rice Street after their final harvest in November 2000.
“An icon for Kaua‘i was going to disappear,” she said, explaining why many people had tears in their eyes.
For Kaua‘i to be “all or nothing” regarding any industry would be unsustainable, Kanoho said.
“This is a real wake-up call,” Hontz said. “We have to have a really strong tourist economy, but it cannot become the only leg to stand on.”
•Coco Zickos, business and environmental writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 251) or email@example.com.