Maui Drowning?

"I can see why they colonized this place," Jesse says to me as we watch the sun setting over the tropical Pacific. "It's just so pretty."

I mull this over as the people around us -- all Westerners, mostly speaking English -- start drifting back to their cars from the grassy lookout where we're drowning in orange light. I've been swimming in the tidewaters so much the past few days that whenever I sit down, I get this phantom tide feeling and sway slightly back and forth.

We're in the Hawaiian Islands, on a figure eight-shaped landmass called Maui -- you may have heard of it. Seized by the United States back in 1900, it became a state in 1959. A lot of land on Maui is controlled by two companies with quaint, colonial, we-steal-raw-materials names: Maui Land and Pineapple and Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar. The former is mostly a land developer these days (there's a lot of money to be made building resorts here), while the latter still oversees vast sugarcane farms and the incredibly stinky Pu'unene sugar mill.

HC&S also uses a huge amount of the water on the island, which has become a problem of late, owing to droughts and a growing human population. When these companies were first setting up shop here, about 100 years ago, the island's main source of income was hardly tourism. But it is now, which is why Jesse and I were able to return from our sunset adventure to a freshly built condo in Kihei, one of the island's most rapidly developing areas. It's also why Maui Land and Pineapple is less interested in tasty fruits than it is in creating creepy pseudo-eco resorts like Kapalua.

Located on the mostly uninhabited northern tip of the island, Kapalua is all golf courses, four-star hotels, condos, and neatly trimmed "natural areas." After we drove the jagged road around the eastern island to reach it, past stacks of volcanic rocks and a few working-class towns, Kapalua was like an alien infestation of suburban wealth. It's the sort of spot that reminds you of the evil side of eco-tourism: the wild landscape is converted into something suburban and generic.

But so much about Maui tugs in the opposite direction -- despite (or perhaps because of) bitter political fights about land development and water resources, the island still seems surprisingly unmolested. There are very few highways, and the few cities are tiny. Sure, there are Starbucks and Costco and SUVs filling out the parking lots at every beach. And it was only in the late 1970s that the state government officially attempted to revive its natives' cultures by creating schools and cultural programs that teach the Hawaiian language and customs.

So yeah, colonialism is still alive and well here, from the dominant landowning corporations to the dominant culture. And yet something else is alive here too: a culture of eco-preservationism the likes of which I've never seen anywhere else in the United States. When I go snorkeling, the waters are clean and the fish are zooming around like mad. I'm a city kind of person, so I'm perpetually astounded by the extent to which tourism has not yet eroded the wildlife here.

I grew up in a region of southern California whose seaside beauty should rival Hawaii's, but doesn't. The beaches are polluted, and the seaside towns are caked in garbage. Growing up, I thought beach towns were places to score pot and play videogames. They were hardly for communing with nature -- whatever the hell that might be.

Here on Maui, nature can still be found, despite human intervention. But the next few years could usher in profound changes. The Maui County Council is pretty cozy with Maui Land and Pineapple, and that might mean relaxed regulations on development. More people are moving here from the U.S. mainland, squeezing out local native culture and sucking up the already depleted freshwater. Unfortunately, many developers believe that tourists want malls and housing developments that look like what they have "back home." So the trend, especially in Kihei, is toward suburbanization.

But it doesn't have to be this way. Groups like Maui Tomorrow, which pushes for affordable housing and eco-friendly land use, are working to keep Maui the way it is. What I hope is that the island's local government will realize that it will continue to make money on tourism if natural spaces are preserved as they are -- and not turned into Kapalua-like monstrosities. Tourists, the island's bread and butter, don't want McDonald's -- they want to play with sea turtles and eat local fish.

I'm about to watch another sunset on an unpolluted south Maui beach. I hope people in 300 years will see the same view.


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