A Tale of Two Islands

A Tale of Two Islands
by Dr. Doom

I recently had the chance to visit the “outer” Hawaiian islands of Lana’i and Moloka’i on professional business, which allows me to observe and study in detail inconspicuous parts of these places that only the farmers, hunters, construction workers and groundskeepers get to fully appreciate, but that’s another story for another time. First 2.5 days were on Lana’i, which used to be solely owned in its entirety by Dole Pineapple, where for most of the 20th Century it almost completely supplied the world’s crop of pineapples and its juice. If you visited or have seen pictures of this island in its heyday, it was a site to behold: rows and rows of dense, neatly planted dark green pineapple plants stretching off into vistas of the blue Pacific. Now, it’s mostly back to tall grass and various weeds, like parts of west Texas without the goats or cattle, with bits of black plastic scattered about in the red soil as the last clues of pineapple cultivation.

The island is still privately owned, lately by the multi-billionaire Rupert Murdock of Fox News and other fame. Much money still flows into and out of the island, but now the locals, or a portion of the descendants of the original pineapple plantation workers, now retired, almost exclusively work for the tourist industry.

Lana’i has two 5-star, elite-class resort hotels, the Lodge at Koele, famous as the site of multi-billionaire geek Bill and Melinda Gate’s rather exclusive wedding (they reserved the entire island for the week). The Lodge is just north of the one and only town of Lana’i City (a joke?) which is so small it reminds one of an old medieval European or Latin American town with one large tree-lined and filled square and narrow, mostly paved streets running off in all compass directions, into the “suburbs” of planned plantation housing. Shade is provided by rows of Norfolk pines, planted more than 80 years ago and now really big and tall.

More Norfolk pines have been planted along the 2-lane road that leads to town from the small airport and down slope to the second resort, the former Menele Bay Hotel, now a Four Seasons Resort, on the coast. Ground water that I presume once grew pineapples now is applied amply and apparently daily to this area, just back from the sea cliffs, in a relatively windless and hot, dry part of the island. These resorts both possess “world class” golf courses and are by design entirely self-contained as far as tourist needs. If you have to ask how much the rooms cost, then you probably can’t afford to stay there, and should instead opt for the quaint Hotel Lana’i or a B&B or house rental in the “city”.

Click image if you have Google Earth installed
Click image if you have Google Earth installed

So, let’s call this island an apparent success in this tale of two outer islands, perhaps serving as a model for the invisible hand of continued economic success and adaptation via the “free” enterprise capitalist system. The other end of the continuum is the former plantation town of Maunaloa, on western Moloka’i. Interestingly, both Lana’i and western Moloka’i started out as successful pineapple plantations, and the contracted workers were accommodated in the company-owned towns of Lana’i City and Maunaloa.

Pineapple in the US went from private and profitable to private and government subsidized, in the form of tariffs and other federal and state economic relief until the 1980s, when globalization finally did in the highly efficient but now unprofitable US operations. The American Dream of bettering the next generation drove off the offspring of the original plantation workers, to college and professional careers, and slowly raised the wages of a graying worker population above the essentially slave-labor wages of the Philippines and other foreign countries that had been the last source of imported plantation labor to the US and Hawaii.

Enter the Moloka’i Ranch, Inc., with big plans for west Moloka’i along the lines of the resorts on Lana’i. They restored the old plantation town of Maunaloa, added their own Lodge, on a much humbler scale, but at the same time added a cinema plus various shops and restaurants, a little “main street” town nestled on top of an extinct shield volcano centrally located atop the vast expanse of dry, brown and windy western Moloka’i. On the northwest coast, facing my home on eastern Oahu, across the 20+ mile expanse of the Moloka’i Channel, the ranch built another resort plus golf course, on a site with surrounding condominiums and townhouses, a bridle trail, beautiful natural coral sand beaches, and actually raised cattle and goats, plus the occasional exotic giraffe and llama. Times were good.

Then times got tough. The original business plan for west Moloka’i never caught the imagination of the elite or perhaps not so elite and wealthy tourist class, as did Lana’i. The cattle made some money, but not enough to sustain their massive investment without tourism. So, then the cost cutting began: first, they closed the coastal resort, then the golf course. Now, a visit there reveals the only business displaying OPEN signs are apparently hopeless real estate agencies, with boarded-up windows on the resort buildings, weeds growing in the parking lot, all surrounded by a sea of condos and townhouses, with some occupied by locals that must now drive for miles to find an operating golf course or a restaurant, or a grocery store or gas station. Parked cars with long-term canvas covers line the mostly empty lots. Shades of a ghost town in the making.

The apparent final blow occurred last April. The latest owners, a Korean investment company, announced a plan to build a gated community of expensive condos on one of the better fishing coasts of the property. The local Moloka’i community, with fishing as either an occupation or a cherished hobby, objected strongly, though not violently. Today one sees hand-painted signs in front yards around the island proclaiming “Save _____”. And, they “won”; the company retreated from the plan. They also announced they were closing the town of Manualoa, effective 30 April 2008.

So, there’s the town, with all the principal business buildings along main street, wood paneling nicely painted in plantation dark green with white trim, closed permanently, unpainted plywood covering the windows and doors. The marquee on the closed cinema reads, “Closed 30 April 2008. Thank you Moloka’i.” Moron like Fuck you Moloka’i. The company sold the surrounding plantation houses plus land for additional development to the locals, at what appeared to be bargain rates, but they were unaware of the company’s ability and willingness to pull the plug on the town, a virtual community to them, if the company did not get their way.

It was, to quote the company: “strictly a business decision”. Now, townsfolk must commute over 20 miles into Kanakakai for gas, or most other supplies not found in the remaining general store, which looked rather meager and pricy. I didn’t have time to take a poll, so I can only say the locals I met seemed resigned to their fate.

The latest blow is the threat by the company to cut off the town’s water supply. No doubt another “business decision”. The state is coming to the town’s rescue with an injunction and a pending lawsuit to make them keep this vital supply open.

So what does this portend for sleepy little Lana’i, seemingly so peaceful and secure? And who wants to get in on the cheap real estate deals now offered on west Moloka’i and give a try at living in a Post-PO world? Gotta love that capitalism and the global economy, so good to all the folks over the years.

Still yet, some horses and a buggy, and a local “doc” to visit, maybe a good sailboat and some supplemental shore fishing, deer/pig hunting on east Moloka’i, humm….Gunsmoke, the reality.

Click this link to view in Google Earth
Google Earth page for Lana’i and Moloka’i placemark

[originally posted August 4th]

[Find Globe article circa 9.15]

21 Replies to “A Tale of Two Islands”

  1. Fantastic look at what is going on outside of the big Islands. Are you going to midway to see what the Navy is doing to that island :)

    I think the only reason the State stepped in was to keep some sort of control over the island.

    I am pretty sure that those exclusive resorts do not pay much in the way of taxes to the State.

    Also with the Office Of Hawaiian Affairs accused of not doing much and lots of corruption charges, my guess is they put some pressure on the State to do something. The Office Of Hawaiian Affairs needs all the good press they can get. Helping poor natives will allow then to claim they are doing something for the people they are supposed to represent.

  2. ya, nice little bit doom. my only thought is that i guess there are some fresh water seeps or springs, so some small population could have go at it.

  3. Doom, now that’s the way to write a travelogue! If you haven’t already, I’d recommend that you e-mail this post to him.

    Do you think that Molokai’s leprosy legacy had anything to do with the town not attracting enough investment, people, etc?? Again, nice work, Father Doomien.

  4. *e-mail this post to JHK*, is what I meant.

    Who knows? Maybe Jim (e.g., when next in a posting pinch) might decide to take a week off, and put up a Guest Post in lieu of hastily cranking out another bizarro “movie review”…

  5. Midway would be interesting, roachman. We are actually planning trips to the “forbidden” outer islands of Kahoolawe and Niihau. Not sure what we may find there beyond the usual geology stuff. We’ll see, and will report if interesting.

    There is definitely some dancing going on with the state and OHA and these corporations. We have a republican governor and she tries to accommodate business, but these Korean investors are so ham-handed they even have her riled up. The state just hired a crack prosecutor known for her tenacity in such cases, so it should be interesting.

    Dave, thanks, there is indeed ground water that the former Molokai ranch pumped up from wells to Maunaloa, and you are correct about coastal seeps and springs. Those are the ones the ancient Hawaiians used. They grew gourds for the purpose of carrying water and free dove with them inverted to retrieve fresh water from shallow submarine springs. Those guys were smarties.

    There is plenty of fresh water in east Moloka’i, just how to retrieve it at reasonable cost. The island is in drought and under a 20% voluntary water rationing. The largest water user is Monsanto Moloka’i, who test grows genetically-modified corn and other crops for their agribusiness. Frankenfood, ack. He locals need jobs, but you can sense they are prostituting themselves and their island ways for an economy. When they stand up for their lifestyles over those proposed by the elites, the investors (foreign and perhaps domestic) try to pull the plug on entire communities.

    Playing hardball with people’s lives in “paradise”.

  6. Thanks for the kudos, Holmes. I’ll email JHK and send him the URL link, but I’m not looking for a job. I thank JR for doing a nice job with the figure, support, etc. here at ZK.

    Regarding the leprosy (Hansen’s disease) colony, that was down on the isolated Kalaupapa Peninsula, and of course it can be cured now, so the leper stigma should be gone.

    I suspect that Lana’i both helped and cursed the west Moloka’i venture. It’s success probably helped to attract investors but in the end, a preference was made for the Lana’i operation. The Moloka’i ranch may have been targeting somewhat lower income tourists, but then you need volume to make up for lower per capita sales, and that just didn’t happen over the bigger markets for those tourists in Waikiki and Maui.

  7. With George W setting up the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument they might be making Fed/State tourist tours? One might speculate.

  8. Dr. Doom

    Kahoolawe is off Maui.

    Is it safe enouph yet to really get a good look at Kahoolawe? I have not seen anything recent about the efforts to clean the Island up?

  9. Dr. Doom, I fully understand you’re not looking for a job. For multiple reasons, I regretted my comment after I posted it, except for praising your post. Indeed, the stigma should be gone. But… I thought… maybe a slight component of collective consciousness persistence may be at play? Arghhh… there I go again. Some bloggers NEVER take a vacation for well known reasons. Thus, I am foolish again. JR, please forgive my recklessness. I will try to raise the level of my game. JHK, I applaud you for trying something different. SB, welcome to New York!!!

  10. Holmes, relax, you’re among friends here.

    Roachman, there is still a lot of unexploded ordinance on Kahoolawe. One has to apply for permission to work there, and then someone from the Kahoolawe commission is assigned to guide you while there. There are still red zones where no one can go except demolitions experts because they have not been cleared of debris.

  11. Hi Dr D. Interesting post. What’s the power generation on these islands? Diesel generators?

  12. St. Bif, twin generators are used there that likely burn “bunker oil” from Oahu’s refineries, I doubt that they burn expensive diesel. Gasoline costs over $5 per gallon on both Molokai and Lanai, so diesel must be even moron expensive.

    There’s some serious talk of offers to buy the Molokai ranch lands to provide wind power for Oahu via an undersea power cable, something like 300 MW. Link here: http://starbulletin.com/2007/11/08/business/story02.html

  13. Dang. No thought to using renewables? You got solar, you got wind (especially on top of Mount Wanahakalugi), you got tidal. What’s the dee?

  14. FAR, if they appoint me king, I promise to try all those alt energy schemes.

    Unfortunately, there seems to be a bimodal distribution of folks with no money trying to eek out a living, and those with money but no common sense or balls to risk some of their investment. So, they try to play god to the locals and squeeze them till they do something really stupid, like revolt or something, maybe take it out on the innocent tourists in a “transfer” psycho move, dunno.

    If the state comes down hard on the Moloka’i Ranch in a very anti-business kind of way, which IMHCFNO they richly deserve, then maybe there will still be time to implement some alt energy schemes and drill for moron ground water in east Moloka’i. If you have enough energy, desal can provide water.

  15. Yes, you’re out cluster fucking Jim. Now this is some insight into the giant mechanical donkey that is screwing us all.

    Dear lord, does every week have to bring out a new fucked up troll to dismiss? Technocracy, spinning heads spewing vile, and now back to religion… I’ve frankly given up…

  16. JR, I tried the link to Google Earth on a Mac and it didn’t go. It had the program on the drive, but maybe it’s a Mac/PC compatibility or software update issue.

    [edited for national security]

  17. >Is that even legal?

    Define “legal”. The serious answer is that it depends, but that isn’t as much fun.

  18. Great post, Doom :)

    Your descriptions are wonderful. Please don’t be offended if I say that perhaps you missed a side career in reporting.

    If you’re going to be king out there, please let me know if you’re looking for a minister of efficiency or, heck, just a few good admin people. :)

  19. Doom, I think I understand pretty well. You gots people who needs, you gots people who gots, and the gots don’t wanna help.

    Sometimes, I think all-out class warfare is going to be the only way to fix certain problems with this world.

  20. Doom

    You sure know how to paint a picture. I’ve only been to Hawaii on a two-day stop over but managed to talk to a native Hawaiian who worked on a tour bus. He said that the Hawaiian people were sick of the tourist trade but doubted there would be anything to replace it.

    Shame that the long term locals on the islands you wrote about are getting fucked over.

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