Kealakekua, Hawaii – Earl DeLeon works on his small family plot where he grows traditional Hawaiian crops like taro and breadfruit on the Big Island of Hawaii.
Pausing to rest, DeLeon recalls how he and six other Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) swam ashore and occupied the isolated island of Kahoolawe in 1977, which was then being used by the US navy for live-fire training.
“It became the catalyst of the whole ‘aloha aina’ concept of loving the land and taking care of the land that takes care of you,” DeLeon tells Al Jazeera.
That direct action eventually helped end half a century of bombing on Kahoolawe.
DeLeon is a tall, sturdy man but his voice trembles with emotion as he recounts how one kupuna – a female elder – hugged him and thanked him for standing up for the Kanaka Maoli.
Four decades later, the US military continues to conduct live-fire training on Hawaii’s Big Island at the Pohakuloa Training Area (PTA), the largest military installation in the Pacific, nearly five times as large as Kahoolawe and the size of Guam.
Despite its size, PTA often goes unnoticed by the island’s residents and visitors.
Over 1,800 metres above sea level, PTA sprawls across rugged black lava fields between two of the world’s largest volcanoes, Maua Loa and Maua Kea, and a third, Hualalai.
PTA was established during World War II as training grounds for US marines and is now used for testing and training by the military, as well as the Hawaii County Police Special Response Team.
Bouncing along in a pick-up truck over the rough roads between grenade training pits and small arms, artillery, mortar, munitions and combat training ranges, Eric Hamilton, a US army public affairs officer, explains how PTA allows both US and allied forces to train using all available weapons systems in a controlled environment.
Military units arrive at Kawaihae Harbor where they off-load their equipment and vehicles before travelling in a convoy up to PTA, where the austere environment gives soldiers and marines a taste of the hardships of deployment.
But many Kanaka Maoli, who in January marked 125 years since the US overthrow of their once independent kingdom, dispute PTA’s legitimacy.
PTA is a patchwork of 34,000 hectares of Hawaiian government crown lands seized by executive order, a privately purchased 9,700 hectare parcel and a connecting 9,300 hectare belt of land leased from the state of Hawaii for 65 years for a total of $1.
Last month, Hawaii First Circuit Court Judge Gary Chang ruled that Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) was “in breach of trust” for its inadequate oversight to malama aina (care for the land) on land used for live-fire training under the terms of the lease.
The ruling compels DLNR to produce a plan for enhanced inspections and greater environmental oversight by the end of 2018. Failure to comply with the ruling could jeopardise renewal of the lease, which expires in 2029.
The suit was brought forward by Clarence Kukauakahi “Uncle Ku” Ching, a retired lawyer, and a fellow plaintiff.
Ching has spent decades walking across Hawaii Island, hiking through shrublands, over volcanoes, from coast to coast, living close to the land he considers sacred.
Like many opponents of PTA, he is concerned about the environmental impact and is opposed to Hawaii being used as a staging ground for the US military.
To those who question his charge that live-fire training desecrates sacred land, Ching says “it really doesn’t matter what they think”.
“They’re not here. If I think Mauna Kea (White Mountain) is sacred – it’s sacred.”
Ching was referring to the 4,205-metre high volcano whose name evokes the snow-capped summit.
Some may look at Pohakuloa and see a barren landscape of rocks, but Ching says “they’re significant rocks”.
Pohakuloa can be translated from Hawaiian as “long rock”.
A second interpretation is “night of the long prayer”.
No matter how it is translated, there is a fundamental misunderstanding behind using the area for war training, says Lakea Trask, who identifies as a kiai mauna or mountain guardian.
“The importance of Pohakuloa culturally and ecologically cannot be overstated,” Trask tells Al Jazeera.
This is not just a remote, barren wasteland, he says. This is wao akua (realm of the gods), and the volcanic rock is the vessel that carries and preserves fresh water.
“Wherever you see pohaku,” Trask says, “it’s not just talking about rock. It’s talking about water.”
In the Hawaiian language, fresh water is “wai” and wealth is “wai wai”.
The watersheds and all the life they sustain – every forest, every stream, and the ‘wao kanaka’ (human communities) below are fed by waters flowing from Pohakuloa, says Trask. “Our kupuna are telling you that’s where the water is being stored and protected.”
Not all those who oppose the presence of PTA are Native Hawaiians.
Jim Albertini, founder of the Malu Aina Peace Center For Non-Violent Education and Action, is on a mission to raise awareness of past use of depleted uranium (DU) in the area.
The DU was used as ballast in training munitions for the tactical nuclear “Davy Crockett” weapon system at PTA between 1965 and 1968.
This use of DU and other weapons, Albertini says, has created a “toxic stew of materials”.
Albertini says in 2008 Hawaii’s County Council passed a resolution calling for a halt to PTA live-fire training to address the hazards of DU.
Secret sarin nerve agent tests by the military in Hawaii in the 1960s contributes to the mistrust many harbour today, he says.
The amount of DU used in Hawaii during that time, Hamilton says, was 136kg – “enough to fit into a piece of carry-on luggage”.
According to Hamilton, the public-affairs officer, the US army follows all safety requirements set by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
“We basically complied with everything we had as soon as we knew we had to do it,” he says, adding that concerns about DU are “vastly overblown”.
Hamilton also calls charges of “bombing the aina” (land) “the biggest fallacies [that] arise from a real lack of understanding about what happens here and what did happen here.”
‘Very carefully monitored’
According to Hamilton, all training at PTA is strictly monitored with an emphasis on safety and minimalising impact.
“There’s no haphazard anything that goes on here,” he says.
“We don’t just come out here and allow people to just go crazy shooting things anywhere they choose. Everything from small-arms fire to artillery to rocketry – all of these are very carefully monitored by at least three different entities.”
That argument rings hollow to opponents like Ruth Aloua, an archaeologist and kiai loko or traditional fishpond guardian who leads a community group near Kona in the restoration of a centuries-old coastal fish pond where fresh water flows in from springs fed by Hawaii’s volcanoes.
Calling PTA a “zone of violence,” Aloua says, “for me, as a Kanaka Maoli, it stands against everything that we are as a people and everything that our kingdom stands for. And as individuals, as aloha for our aina …on the most basic level of interactions with place. It’s everything opposite of what I am made of and everything opposite of what I know is right”.
When you call into question these developments or the bombing of our sacred lands, it's really calling in to question the future that we're giving our children. Do they even have a future? That should be the question. We're under the assumption that they will. That is not known.
In the struggle to protect sacred places, Aloua also sees a direct connection between PTA and the battle to stop construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) atop Mauna Kea.
“I’m always reminding myself, Pohakuloa is at the base of Mauna Kea, and so it is Mauna Kea. So the TMT on the northern plateau and going up to the wao akua in that area, it’s all related so whether we go down to Pohakuloa or we continue down to where we are, down by our ocean reefs.”
The movement to protect Mauna Kea, she says, has awakened the younger generation, motivating them to find their courage and raise their voices to join with aloha aina warriors like Earl DeLeon who have been fighting to protect Papahanaumoku (the Earth Mother Goddess) since the struggle for Kahoolawe in the 1970s.
“When you call into question these developments or the bombing of our sacred lands, it’s really calling into question the future that we’re giving our children,” Aloua says.
“Do they even have a future? That should be the question. We’re under the assumption that they will.”
She then pauses and adds: “That is not known.”