Thursday, March 30, 2017

The End of Cane Burning

It’s the end of March, and normally at this time of year, the cane burning fires start. But not this year. Someone who doesn’t live on Maui asked me, have they stopped burning cane? Yes, it’s the end of cane burning season, now and forever. 

Some people are nostalgic for the end of an era, when sugar cane plantations stretched across Maui. To harvest the cane, workers lit huge fires covering hundreds of acres, almost every morning, often between 3 am and 6 am, except Sundays and on holidays or days with bad weather conditions. Burning the tall grass made it easier to harvest the cane stalks by hand. Towards the end of cane burning season in December, sometimes the workers had to light two instead of three fires to make up for lost time.  

Mural in Paia of bygone days: the sugar cane train and sugar plantation.

Cane burning became a divisive issue on Maui. Hawaii Commercial & Sugar Co. (HC &S), the company which owns the fields and makes sugar, maintained that burning was the only economical way to harvest the cane. They employed hundreds of people who wanted to keep their jobs. Other residents were upset about the health effects of cane burning. For decades there were law suits, stifled law suits, rumors of death threats, allegations of burning under illegal conditions, complaints, fines. Cane burning also became an issue of “race” or “insiders vs. outsiders.”

Even though HC&S was formed by capitalist white Americans in the 1800s, it employed many different ethnicities, so speaking against cane burning was seen as being against “local culture” or against the people who were born here.  People who moved to Maui from elsewhere represented changes to Maui, so if they didn’t like cane burning, they were seen as outsiders who really shouldn’t have an opinion. 
This graffiti from Paia in 2012 shows the cultural clashes with sugarcane burning. This graffiti shows a protestor with a sign, "Stop the Burn." A few days later, someone else stenciled "Culturally Uninformed Penguin" as a response. 

Some people who were born on Maui or long time residents felt they couldn’t speak against cane burning because they would lose their jobs.  In addition, there were issues of water usage and inequality since water was being diverted from local streams and taro farms to irrigate the cane fields. Some people believed that HC&S was continuing to grow sugar at a loss only to justify keeping the water permits, so that they could keep water “rights” for developing houses and commercial businesses.

I started writing this piece last December, but wanted to give it some time and distance from my emotions:

Sometime in December, the last sugarcane fire will be lit, burning acres of green fields, scorching the earth, maybe melting bits of irrigation pipe and fittings, billowing smoke in the dark early morning hours. The rats, cattle egrets and mongooses will flee from the flames and rising heat.

The wind will take the dust and debris, the charred cinders of burnt grass, the exposed red dirt sprayed with pesticides and poisons, the sweat of generations of workers chafing under the hot Maui sun, their gnarled memories and weather beaten hopes, and blow them across the island like the visible exhaust of a failing engine. The black ashes, ironically called “Maui snow,” will settle on the ground for the last time.

The end of an era.

The end of the last sugarcane plantation in all of Hawaii.

The last sugarcane harvest. The last sugarcane burning. Goodbye to the fires.

The earth will breathe a sigh of relief. And so will I.

And I am not the only one.

No more sticky, gluey, stabby, itchy, watery eyes in the morning. No more cane ash on the car. No more lingering, persistent cough that would unexpectedly rattle my chest. No more dry, scratchy throat. No more painful nose swelling and redness.  No more looking like Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. No more running to the bathroom 10 x in an hour, my body aching to expel contaminated fluid out of my body a teaspoon at a time.  No more dripping wet nose and sneezing attacks. No more rasping, creaky voice, like a clawing hand in my throat.

While I may have a few of these symptoms when I’m sick or dealing with allergies or vog, the combination and severity of these symptoms only happen during cane burn season and only on Maui. And I don’t live near a sugarcane field. The closest field is probably 7 miles away. But I’ve felt like a canary in a coal mine. If there is sugarcane burning anywhere nearby and the wind is right, I feel it. And shake my fist at HC&S.

For nine months of every year, from about mid March to early December, hundreds of acres of fields were burned since the 19th century. Hawaii Commercial & Sugar Co. currently owns 36,000 acres of agricultural fields planted in sugarcane. About half of those fields are burned each year.

People who never had asthma in their lives, developed asthma or respiratory illnesses living on Maui. Or worsened allergies. Or other mysterious ailments.

I grew up with sugarcane burning on Oahu. It didn’t happen year round. I still hated it.

I moved to Maui over 10 years ago not knowing that Maui was still burning sugar cane. I still hated it.

The first few years the symptoms weren’t noticeable, but they increased over time.

There are many people who are sad about the end of the sugarcane era. I am not.
It’s hard for me to be nostalgic about something that has made me feel so sick, and has affected others in my life. 

Fallow sugar cane fields along Hana Highway.

This was last December. 

Now as people look at the red fields, they look at scraggly clumps of sugar cane growing amid the mallow, haole koa, and yellow verbesina flowers. What will the fields become? Can they continue to stay in agriculture? Can Maui have more organic farms? They look at the fields with questions and something resembling hope.

Visit more posts in the Archives. If you enjoy this post, consider signing up for a monthly-ish newsletter for insider tidbits about Maui.


Post a Comment

Comments are important to me, so mahalo for adding a comment! I will try to follow up when I receive one.