Bad or nice? On the first anniversary of Mahi Pono’s 56,000-acre farm land grab on Maui, questions remain about the company’s ultimate intentions
Around the same time last year, the Mauians were applauding the news that Alexander & Baldwin had suddenly abandoned their old sugarcane field and 50 percent of their EMI irrigation system in a 267 sale. million dollars to a totally unknown and newly created entity named Mahi Pono.
Oh, there were high hopes for this foreign company, the result of a partnership between the Public Sector Pension Investment Board (PSP) of Canada and a Californian agricultural investment company, Trinitas. No GMO crops, soil decontamination, 1,000 jobs, local faces in high-level positions. Unicorns and rainbows seemed endless in December 2018.
Twelve months later, many people who have had direct contact with Mahi Pono are singing a different song. Although the lyrics vary slightly from person to person, it sounds like this: “I don’t know if the people who run this business are real farm idiots, or just evil.
Why idiots? Well, where do you start? Instead of planting an initial round of forage and cover crops as envisioned by former managing director Larry Nixon (which lasted 16 weeks last winter), nothing was planted while the plan to culture was reviewed and re-revised and re-revised and is still not finalized. If these early protective crops had been planted, it is likely that the July 11 fire that burned 9,000 acres of central Maui (including 5,000 on Mahi Pono land) would not have been so destructive. Now, with the weed fields replaced with charred earth, Kihei suffers from an earth mist when the wind blows.
And speaking of dirt, residents of the Maui Lani and Pukalani areas have complained to the state’s health department about nocturnal dust clouds, which have now become a “thing,” since Maui Pono runs his tractors day and night, plowing and reworking him to land in – well – more dust. In an email, Mahi Pono told a complainant that day / night plowing was necessary due to a “large acreage footprint of citrus that we will be planting in 2020”.
We cannot blame the workers who drive many of these tractors for not understanding the ‘aina, since they are not even from here. Mahi Pono has been importing contract workers from California in turn since last spring. In June, when I first heard about these outsiders – who were staying alongside tourists at the Maui Beach Hotel (how can that be cheaper than hiring locally?) – I asked corporate lobbyist / Mahi Pono senior vice president of operations Shan Tsutsui for comments.
To my amazement (the executives of Maui Pono and its Oahu-based PR agency are mostly unaware of MauiTime‘s), he replied, saying, “Mahi Pono brought in farm staff from the mainland to train our Maui team in the use of specialized equipment, including special tools, installation of irrigation and other new items / equipment for our team here.
“The mainland team is only temporarily in Maui and will leave once training is over,” Tsutsui continued. “As we continue to take new steps in our agricultural operations, we expect to occasionally need to bring in temporary teams from the continent to help with training. “
However, throughout the summer and fall, when I repeated Tsutsui’s “training” explanation to others, my eyebrows arched. No one trains anyone in specialties, these sources have consistently responded. “They are just tractor drivers,” said one of them.
Here is another revelation. In that same June statement, Tsutsui added, “Hawai’i has very experienced farm workers and others looking to enter the business. As we begin to scale up our operations and create more jobs on Maui, we hope as many local residents as possible will join our Mahi Pono ‘ohana.
This differs from what PSP executives were told in at least one meeting – that there was not enough skilled labor in Maui, which is why California workers had to be imported. Also, from what I’ve heard, the locals who were hired (other than the A&B cane workers who came with the deal), don’t get a warm welcome from the ” Mahi Pono ‘ohana ”. Although initially promised full-time positions after several months of employment, they remain contract workers with no benefits, say people with first-hand knowledge of the situation. Mahi Pono’s only big salaries are pulled by executives outside the state, like agricultural overseer (and serial harvest plan reviewer) Ceil Howe III, the barely visible Mahi Pono chairwoman Ann Chin, and the lawyer. of water recently hired, Tim “The Hammer” O’Laughlin, the company’s new COO.
If I’m wrong, Mahi Pono should present a list of non-management workers hired since April who now receive full benefits with their jobs, and I will post a full retraction.
I’ll crawl even more if I’m wrong in repeating the latest gossip that swept through his barren, apocalyptic landscape: that many of those so-so-booed potatoes that Mahi Pono proudly and loudly announced he was planting a few months ago are parties – eaten by wild pigs. At least those who haven’t been rotten by poor irrigation.
Ah yes, the bad irrigation. This is another example of corporate ignorance. Irrigation equipment not suitable for Maui’s land makeup was purchased from a California company owned by one of Ceil Howe’s friends, rather than knowledgeable island companies, Mahi Pono-ites tells me. , but we’ll save this story for another time.
In recounting all these awkward messes, the question has been: does the PSP know what’s really going on in Maui? Are Trinitas managers true money and water hungry predators, with PSP serving as a benevolent and naive Canadian banker? Concerned activists in Maui have even written to PSP to ask this question. Surely, they reason, PSP would change directors if it were made aware of Trinitas’ mismanagement in its Maui operation?
Well, an answer emerged last week, and it doesn’t absolve PSP. In fact, it does more than tip the scales from the designation “idiots” to more malicious intent.
In Australia, which is currently going through one of the worst droughts in the country’s history, PSP has just bought 89,000 megaliters of Australian water rights. A megaliter is 1 million liters, so that’s about 23 billion gallons of water. As Australians face an unprecedented series of water restrictions, PSP plans to use the water – which it now controls for the next 50 years – to irrigate almond trees. It’s a horribly thirsty crop and one that PSP / Trinitas also grows with controversial water acquired in drought-stricken California.
While we haven’t heard of any plans to plant almond trees in Maui, we have certainly heard of Mahi Pono’s push for a permanent lease of millions of gallons of water in East Maui. Just as PSP bought the Australian lease from a Singaporean company (for over $ 300 million), could the water lease acquisition and trade be the end here, rather than any legitimate farming operation? It would be the responsibility of state and county water officials to ensure they have an honest answer to this question before making any decisions about Mahi Pono’s place in the future of Maui’s water. .