Q&A: Maui wildfires ‘an acceleration of injustices’ long felt on island

Al Jazeera speaks to Kaniela Ing, director of Green New Deal Network, about devastating Hawaii blazes and what’s next.

Dustin Pilialoha stands with a sign while waiting for the arrival of President Joe Biden outside the Lahaina Civic Center in Lahaina, Hawaii, Monday, Aug. 21, 2023. His sign reads: "Lahaina needs relief now."
Protesters demand more government relief in the aftermath of devastating wildfires on Maui, August 21, 2023 [File: Jae C Hong/AP Photo]

A massive wildfire driven by hurricane winds scorched communities across Hawaii’s Maui island this month, destroying homes and sending residents fleeing for their lives.

The fast-moving flames killed at least 114 people and consumed the historic community of Lahaina, home to about 13,000 residents and once the capital of the former Hawaiian kingdom.

Hundreds of people remain unaccounted for as crews continue to search through the devastation, and officials have said the death toll is expected to rise.

As Lahaina continues to reel from the deadliest wildfire in more than a century in the United States, the incident has reinvigorated a longstanding debate over climate change, the role tourism plays in Hawaii’s economy and the legacy of colonialism on the island.

Al Jazeera speaks to Kaniela Ing, a seventh-generation Native Hawaiian from Maui and the national director of the Green New Deal Network climate justice group, about the effect of the wildfires and what comes next.

Al Jazeera: Where does the toll of the wildfire currently stand?

Kaniela Ing: The scene is still quite apocalyptic. There [are] dozens of cadaver dogs sniffing through the rubble in search of our loved ones, utility workers digging up piles of electrical lines, thousands of historic buildings flattened.

There’s remarkable displays of unity, but the aftermath remains macabre.

Al Jazeera: Are people in Lahaina getting the help they need from the authorities?

Ing: Hawaii is over 2,000 miles [3,200km] from the closest mainland state, so it takes some time.

For those first few days, we had no choice but to mobilise support ourselves. Now [there’s more] direct assistance — $700 immediately went out to families right when the [emergency] declaration was signed — there’s around 20,000 hot meals being served everyday.

Less people [are] in shelters sleeping on cots and floors as people are moving into hotels and Airbnbs that are subsidised by the government.

But there’s also deeply rooted mistrust of a government that tends to only show up when there’s ribbon cuttings for hotels.

Al Jazeera: Unfortunately, a lot of people have come to associate Lahaina with these apocalyptic scenes, but it’s a place with a long history. Can you talk about its importance historically?

Ing: Lahaina was our original capital, it was the heart of the Hawaiian Kingdom. King Kamehameha’s palace stood at the centre, watching over the shoreline. It was a lush wetland.

It also told a history of colonialism and capitalism. You could walk from one end of the main street to the other through the annals of colonial history, from kingdom days, to sugar and pineapple [industries], to tourism.

Al Jazeera: Do you see a connection between today’s climate crisis and the legacy of colonialism in Hawaii? 

Ing: The fire is tragic, but it’s really an acceleration of injustices that local people, especially Kanaka Maoli [Native Hawaiians], have experienced for generations.

One factor is climate change: Drier vegetation, low humidity, high winds, those are all functions of climate change.

Second, there was the diversion of water from Lahaina by sugar barons at the turn of the 20th century and the introduction of dry grass. The third is the negligence and mismanagement of Hawaiian Electric, our utility on the island.

Without any of those factors, the fire wouldn’t have been as deadly as it was. And those are all connected to the legacy of colonialism in Hawaii.

Al Jazeera: A debate that has been supercharged by the wildfires is whether Hawaii exists for tourists or for the people who live there. Can you walk us through that discussion?

Ing: It feels like every few months there’s another symbol of how Hawaii’s economy is catered towards those who think of Hawaii as their playground, rather than the people who live and work there.

Recently, there was a drought on Maui and people were being fined $500 for watering their lawn. At the same time, hotels have full pools and waterslides.

It was so obvious how the government caters to these multinational corporations and the tourism industry. Right now, our economy consists primarily of tourism and real estate.

Both industries are unsustainable in that they rely on enjoyment of the natural beauty of our islands, but also the development and destruction of them.

There’s a lot of talk about diversifying our economy by politicians, but actions speak differently. We’ve created this permanent underclass. It’s a modern version of the plantation economy.

Al Jazeera: Are you worried that model could be imposed on Lahaina as the town rebuilds?

Ing: Unless the people of Lahaina and everyone in Hawaii rise up and demand immediate relief, a just recovery, and community-centred rebuilding, then we should expect nothing to change.

But this is an inflection point. The fire has left a power vacuum in a sense that it’s not immediately clear who’s going to be in charge of rebuilding, and while we’re grieving and healing, unfortunately, there’s already land grabbers and disaster capitalists circling the carnage like vultures.

There’s an opportunity to transform our economy, our land use, our political influence, and we really need to seize that opportunity. I’m really hoping for this recovery to set an example of what justice can look like and how we can centre the people most impacted in the process.

Al Jazeera: For people asking what they can do to help, what would you point them towards?

Ing: Well, don’t come to Maui yet. We need hotel rooms across the island right now. There might be a time where there could be boots on the ground support, but not now.

We need the federal government to provide aid to small businesses and workers directly like they did during COVID, so we don’t face this impossible choice of our shops needing revenue and our survivors needing places to stay.

So far, a lot of these grassroots funds have raised a lot of money. But we know that rebuilding will cost at least $6bn, and that kind of money isn’t going to come from grassroots donors or philanthropy, it’s going to come from government.

We also set up mauirecoveryfund.org. It’s a collaboration between the most rooted funds, with an eye on the long run.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Source: Al Jazeera