Seeds of di­vi­sion

The re­cent bat­tle over GMO leg­is­la­tion made clear that swiftly grow­ing fric­tion has “nowhere to hide” on in­ti­mate Kauai

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - FRONT PAGE - By Ti­mothy Hur­ley thur­ley@starad­ver­

he pitched bat­tle over the so-called anti-GMO bill on Kauai has sim­mered down for now, but the clash left the is­land blood­ied, bruised and a lit­tle wob­bly af­ter lay­ing bare a fes­ter­ing schism.

“It’s a civil war, I gotta tell you,” said Jerry Or­nel­las, pres­i­dent of the Kaua‘i County Farm Bureau. “It’s fam­ily against fam­ily. I’ve never seen any­thing like it. The com­mu­nity is deeply di­vided.”

An ap­par­ent widen­ing gulf be­tween what some have de­scribed as po­lit­i­cally ac­tive new­com­ers, or mal­i­hini, and long­time lo­cal res­i­dents, or ka­maaina, has made for un- com­fort­able times for some on the Gar­den Is­land.

Ob­servers say for months the fric­tion dom­i­nated con­ver­sa­tions and ap­peared in let­ters to the ed­i­tor, online com­ments and tes­ti­mony — and may have man­i­fested into some phys­i­cal al­ter­ca­tions.

“It’s there,” said Kauai County Plan­ning Di­rec­tor Michael Dahilig of the ten­sion. “What’s aug­mented the fe­roc­ity of it is the small pop­u­la­tion here. There’s nowhere to hide.”

Fa­mous for its white-sand beaches, ver­dant val­leys and stretches of rugged coast­line, the mostly ru­ral is­land is home to just un­der 70,000 res­i­dents. But the pop­u­la­tion is ex­pected to climb to

nearly 85,300 by 2035, ac­cord­ing to Kauai County pro­jec­tions. From 1990 to 2011, the county’s pop­u­la­tion grew by 31 per­cent — more than dou­ble Oahu’s 15 per­cent growth dur­ing that pe­riod.

Maui and Hawaii is­land have ex­pe­ri­enced sim­i­lar pop­u­la­tion growth and, per­haps not so co­in­ci­den­tally, are con­fronting some of the same di­vi­sions over ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied or­gan­isms and pes­ti­cide use as in­creas­ing ur­ban­iza­tion clashes with the is­lands’ agri­cul­tural legacy.

THE DRAMA tied to Kauai’s Bill 2491 be­gan in early sum­mer when county Coun­cil­men Gary Hooser and Tim Bynum in­tro­duced the mea­sure as a means to curb ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied crops and pes­ti­cide use by the is­land’s largest agri­cul­tural con­cerns, in­clud­ing four biotech­nol­ogy seed com­pa­nies and Kauai Cof­fee.

It ended — at least for now — last month amid death threats and height­ened se­cu­rity as the bill was passed into county law.

Along the way there was ag­gres­sive, in-your-face po­lit­i­cal cam­paign­ing, tense con­fronta­tions and marathon pub­lic hear­ings fea­tur­ing sign-wav­ing, shout­ing and tear­ful tes­ti­mony. Bill sup­port­ers linked the ac­tiv­i­ties of the seed com­pa­nies to se­ri­ous health prob­lems while op­po­nents gravely warned that the bill’s pro­posed re­stric­tions would force the in­dus­try, along with hun­dreds of jobs, off the is­land.

Bat­tle lines were or­ga­nized along T-shirt col­ors, with bill back­ers wear­ing red and op­po­nents blue. In early Septem­ber, an es­ti­mated 1,500 to 4,000 peo­ple marched through the streets of Li­hue to show sup­port for the bill.

One side was em­bold­ened by a ro­bust so­cial me­dia net­work and re­in­forced by offisland and main­land anti-GMO groups, while the other side was sus­tained by the power of global cor­po­ra­tions Syn­genta, DuPont Pio- neer, BASF and Dow AgroS­ciences.

By the time the bill was ap­proved on first read­ing Oct. 16, some of its most con­tro­ver­sial sec­tions had been dropped dur­ing the leg­isla­tive process. But it still re­quired buf­fer zones, dis­clo­sures per­tain­ing to pes­ti­cide use and farm­ing of GMO crops, and a county study on the in­dus­try’s en­vi­ron­men­tal and health im­pacts.

Mayor Bernard Car­valho Jr. faced an an­gry mob af­ter he an­nounced his veto two weeks later, point­ing to a le­gal opin­ion that the law wouldn’t stand up in court. The next day po­lice dis­closed Car­valho had been threat­ened, prompt­ing metal-de­tec­tor screen­ing and greater po­lice pres­ence at Kauai’s His­toric County Build­ing.

And just when it ap­peared the bill was go­ing down in flames, the coun­cil ma­jor­ity pulled off a shrewd move to win the day. One vote shy of over­rid­ing the veto, the ma­jor­ity post­poned ac­tion un­til a coun­cil va­cancy could be filled with a new mem­ber, Ma­son Chock, who was sym­pa­thetic to the cause. Vic­tory came on Nov. 16.

Forbes sci­ence writer Jon En­twine summed it up in melo­dra­matic fash­ion: “The bro­ken process has driven a mas­sive wedge into the heart of this once peace­ful is­land com­mu­nity. This 11th hour ma­neu­ver has only deep­ened the dis­trust and dis­sen­sion.”

WHAT HAD STARTED as a de­bate over ques­tions of health and en­vi­ron­ment in­ten­si­fied as pas­sions tore at the so­cial fab­ric of the is­land. Di­vi­sions seemed to emerge be­tween young and old, new­comer and long­time res­i­dent, Cau­casians and lo­cals.

“I think there’s clearly a sig­nif­i­cant pro­por­tion of the com­mu­nity flex­ing its mus­cle on is­sues that don’t rep­re­sent the tra­di­tional ma­jor­ity of the is­land,” said Jan TenBruggen­cate, a long­time Kauai-based jour­nal­ist and elected mem­ber of the Kaua‘i Is­land Util­ity Co­op­er­a­tive board.

Ob­servers say the di­vide was ev­i­dent in 2007 when pro­test­ers blocked the Hawaii Su­per­ferry from dock­ing at Naw­ili­wili Har­bor and helped lead to its down­fall. It con­tin­ued last year with a rowdy demon­stra­tion that may have con­trib­uted to the re­peal of the state’s Pub­lic Land De­vel­op­ment Corp.

TenBruggen­cate was among those who watched the GMO drama un­fold with more than its share of over­the-top ex­ag­ger­a­tions and ag­gres­sive and dis­re­spect­ful be­hav­ior.

On one side, he said, there were peo­ple call­ing those in the pro-Bill 2491 group “North Shore cra­zies” and “hip­pies,” while folks on the other side called the op­po­si­tion “un­e­d­u­cated” and in­ca­pable of rec­og­niz­ing the threats they face.

“There is plenty of dem­a­goguery on both sides,” he said.

Some fear that even re­cent in­ci­dents of vi­o­lence were re­lated to the fric­tion. In June, a group of men attacked some campers at Poli­hale Beach in West Kauai in what some de­scribed as a con­flict be­tween races and/or pos­si­bly be­tween those iden­ti­fied as “west siders” ver­sus North Shore res­i­dents.

In Au­gust, a 26-year-old Cau­casian male was as­saulted by a lo­cal man in an at­tack that was orig­i­nally char­ac­ter­ized by the vic­tim as a hate crime.

Whether th­ese in­ci­dents have any di­rect tie to Bill 2491 is un­known, but they may be in­dica­tive of deep­en­ing di­vi­sions.

In the heat of the bat­tle over the bill, a lot of lo­cals said they felt like they were un­der at­tack.

At a coun­cil hear­ing held in Au­gust, Tyleen Medeiros, a seed com­pany em­ployee, said: “They act like we have no morals, like we don’t care about the peo­ple on the is­land. I have four kids. I don’t care how much the com­pany pays me. I would never put them in dan­ger, or any­body else’s kids for that mat­ter.

“This is our is­land, too. We work on the west side. We live there. We raise our kids there. We send them to the schools. We are not forced to work for the seed in­dus­try.”

Some railed against the new­com­ers.

“Who are you to speak for me?” Ja­son Manawai wrote in a Nov. 13 let­ter to the Gar­den Is­land news­pa­per. “No one speaks for the ma­jor­ity of those who live on this is­land, es­pe­cially when you look into the au­di­ence at the pub­lic hear­ings and see a sea of pink faces, faces that have no roots here and yet think they know bet­ter than me and have a right to come here and tell me what to do.”

BUT HOOSER, the chief pro­po­nent of Bill 2491, said if peo­ple saw a lot of Cau­casians and as­sumed they were fresh from the main­land, they were prob­a­bly wrong. A lot of the anti-GMO sup­port­ers, he said, were the sons and daugh­ters of his is­land con­tem­po­raries. Hooser landed in Hawaii in 1970.

Hooser fin­gered the biotech com­pa­nies as largely re­spon­si­ble for di­vid­ing the com­mu­nity by paint­ing the bill as threat to on-is­land jobs.

“They looked at it as a po­ten­tial strat­egy, which is ironic be­cause they are the new­com­ers,” he said.

Hooser said he doesn’t blame the seed com­pany em­ploy­ees for lash­ing out. “Nat­u­rally, peo­ple are go­ing to be con­cerned about their jobs when their bosses tell them they’re go­ing to close up.”

With the ag com­pa­nies re­fus­ing to tell the com­mu­nity about what pes­ti­cides they’re spray­ing, it caused even more di­vi­sive­ness, he said.

Through­out the bat­tle, agribusi­ness rep­re­sen­ta­tives main­tained that any lack of trans­parency is due to com­pe­ti­tion in an in­dus­try that’s tight-lipped about trade se­crets. Also, they as­serted that their op­er­a­tions are al­ready care­fully mon­i­tored by three fed­eral agen­cies: the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture, the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency and the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Even so, bill sup­port­ers con­tended that such reg­u­la­tion is in­suf­fi­cient.

Fern Rosen­stiel, one of the lead­ers of the anti-GMO group ‘Ohana O Kaua‘i, con­ceded that tem­pers some­times got out of con­trol, which prompted the group’s web­site to cau­tion sup­port­ers to use re­straint.

“Peo­ple are liv­ing with this ev­ery day,” she said, ex­plain­ing the testy be­hav­ior. “When peo­ple are wor­ried, peo­ple get des­per­ate. And when peo­ple get des­per­ate, they do stupid things.”

David Neko­moto, a re­tired Navy com­man­der from Lawai, said a large ma­jor­ity chose to re­main silent rather than speak up and face the wrath of ac­tivists.

“It’s never good to see the com­mu­nity di­vided,” he said.

Jour­nal­ist Joan Con­row, au­thor of the Kauai Eclec­tic blog, said a lot of res­i­dents were put off by the rowdy be­hav­ior.

Kauai has a long his­tory of ac­tivism, with protest marches go­ing back to at least the ’70s, she said. This time, she said, it was mean­spir­ited and more im­po­lite than it needed to be.

“A lot of peo­ple were un­com­fort­able get­ting in­volved be­cause of the con­fronta­tion.”

At least one busi­ness was tar­geted by ac­tivists — a flower farmer and ex­porter of trop­i­cal flow­ers, Con­row said. Af­ter dis­cov­ery­ing the busi­ness was iden­ti­fied as a user of a re­stricted-use pes­ti­cide, there were an­gry re­marks and calls for a boy­cott posted on the In­ter­net.

So­cial me­dia played a big role, al­low­ing wide­spread dis­sem­i­na­tion of some­times dis­torted in­for­ma­tion.

“Both sides used a lot of fear-mon­ger­ing and mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion,” she said.

CON­ROW SAID watch­ing the histri­on­ics of the past few months was sad.

“It’s an is­sue I’m in­ter­ested in and have long been con­cerned about. But there was so much dis­hon­esty and neg­a­tiv­ity in the cam­paign, it just turned me off. It made me think: Is this how it’s go­ing to be on Kauai from now on? Where ev­ery­one is at each other’s throat?”

As for the move­ment’s po­lit­i­cal power, Con­row’s not sure it will trans­late into elec­tion suc­cess.

“The po­lit­i­cal ma­chine is well en­trenched on Kauai. It’s go­ing to take more than this to unseat it or even to wig­gle in.”

Con­row dis­missed the no­tion that race was at the center of the con­flict.

“It’s not that sim­ple,” she said. “A lot of lo­cals were for Bill 2491. I don’t re­ally think it’s a racial thing.”

Car­valho, Kauai’s top elected of­fi­cial for the last five years, said he is op­ti­mistic that the po­lit­i­cal dis­cord will lack any last­ing so­cial con­se­quence.

“Over the years there have been is­sues that have cre­ated mo­men­tary di­vi­sion in our com­mu­nity, but we al­ways seem to find a way to come to­gether as an is­land ohana in the long run,” the mayor said in a state­ment. “Hope­fully we can learn from this ex­pe­ri­ence and face tough is­sues in a re­spon­si­ble and re­spect­ful way in the fu­ture.”


While county coun­cilmem­bers heard tes­ti­mony on Bill 2491 last month in Kauai’s His­toric County Build­ing, po­lice stood watch over sup­port­ers and op­po­nents of the leg­is­la­tion, which would have set new re­stric­tions on pes­ti­cide use and the farm­ing of ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied crops. Mayor Bernard Car­valho Jr.’s veto of the bill even­tu­ally fell to a coun­cil over­ride vote on Nov. 16.


Emo­tions ran high at Kauai’s His­toric County Build­ing Nov. 14 as news came that the county coun­cil did not have enough votes to over­ride Mayor Bernard Car­valho Jr.’s veto of Bill 2491. Coun­cilmem­bers did de­feat the veto af­ter they de­layed pro­ceed­ings for a day to fill the coun­cil’s va­cant seat.

Bill Walker and other Bill 2491 sup­port­ers were decked out in red dur­ing the heated de­bate over the leg­is­la­tion, while op­po­nents wore blue.

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