Exposed: Monsanto's Chemical War Against Indigenous Hawaiians
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At 9 am on an overcast morning in paradise, hundreds of protesters gathered in traditional Hawaiian chant and prayer. Upon hearing the sound of the conch shell, known here as Pū, the protesters followed a group of women towards Monsanto’s grounds.
“A’ole GMO,” cried the mothers as they marched alongside Monsanto’s cornfields, located only feet from their homes on Molokai, one of the smallest of Hawaii’s main islands. In a tiny, tropical corner of the Pacific that has warded off tourism and development, Monsanto’s fields are one of only a few corporate entities that separates the bare terrain of the mountains and oceans.
This spirited march was the last of a series of protests on the five Hawaiian islands that Monsanto and other biotech companies have turned into the world’s ground zero for chemical testing and food engineering. Hawaii is currently at the epicenter of the debate over genetically modified organisms, generally shortened to GMOs. Because Hawaii is geographically isolated from the broader public, it is an ideal location for conducting chemical experiments. The island chain’s climate and abundant natural resources have lured five of the world’s largest biotech chemical corporations: Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont Pioneer and BASF. In the past 20 years, these chemical companies have performed over 5,000 open-field-test experiments of pesticide-resistant crops on an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 acres of Hawaiian land without any disclosure, making the place and its people a guinea pig for biotech engineering.
The presence of these corporations has propelled one of the largest movement mobilizations in Hawaii in decades. Similar to the environmental and land sovereignty protests in Canada and the continental United States, the movement is influenced by indigenous culture.
“All of the resources that our kapuna [elders] gave to us, we need to take care of now for the next generation,” said Walter Ritte, a Hawaii activist, speaking in part in the Hawaiian indigenous language.
“That is our kuleana [responsibility]. That is everybody’s kuleana.”
In Hawaiian indigenous culture, the very idea of GMOs is effectively sacrilegious.
“For Hawaii’s indigenous peoples, the concepts underlying genetic manipulation of life forms are offensive and contrary to the cultural values of aloha ‘ʻāina [love for the land],” wrote Mililani B. Strask, a native Hawaiian attorney.
Monsanto has a long history of making chemicals that bring about devastation. The company participated in the Manhattan Project to help produce the atomic bomb during World War II. It developed the herbicide “Agent Orange” used by U.S. military forces during the Vietnam War, which caused an estimated half-million birth deformities. Most recently, Monsanto has driven thousands of farmers in India to take their own lives, often by drinking chemical insecticide, after the high cost of the company’s seeds forced them into unpayable debt.
A Molokai resident expresses joy as the march passes by her home, which is located across the street from Monsanto’s fields. (WNV/Imani Altemus-Williams)
The impacts of chemical testing and GMOs are immediate — and, in the long-term, could prove deadly. In Hawaii, Monsanto and other biotech corporations have sprayed over 70 different chemicals during field tests of genetically engineered crops, more chemical testing than in any other place in the world. Human studies have not been conducted on GMO foods, but animal experiments show that genetically modified foods lead to pre-cancerous cell growth, infertility, and severe damage to the kidneys, liver and large intestines. Additionally, the health risks of chemical herbicides sprayed onto GMO crops cause hormone disruption, cancer, neurological disorders and birth defects. In Hawaii, some open-field testing sites are near homes and schools. Prematurity, adult on-set diabetes and cancer rates have significantly increased in Hawaii in the last ten years. Many residents fear chemical drift is poisoning them.