Outline of Maui

Behind the Maui wildfires

Inside the exploitative systems and long-standing inequities that made the wildfires possible August 2023
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Two weeks after one of the deadliest wildfires tore through Lāhainā, Maui, we’re still uncovering the depths of the shock, grief, and trauma that survivors are experiencing. The official death count has reached 115, with 388 people still missing. Communities have also suffered immeasurable cultural losses throughout the historical town of Lāhainā — the original capital of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i.

So, why did this happen, and how did we get here? As Indigenous communities continue to remind us, the answer to these questions gives us insight into the exploitative systems and long-standing inequities that made the wildfires possible. It also highlights the urgent need to address the painful legacy of inequality and injustice that Native Hawaiians have faced for hundreds of years. Let’s break it down.

U.S. Colonialism in Maui 

There’s a long history of colonialism and exploitation that has harmed Native Hawaiians.  Throughout the 19th century, American sugar barons and political leaders, aided by white missionaries from the U.S. and Britain, worked together to seize control of the Hawaiian Islands. Their campaign to extract profit, natural resources, and military power from the land disenfranchised and marginalized Indigenous communities despite fierce Native Hawaiian organizing and resistance. Today, the Maui wildfires show us how and where colonialism and extractive capitalism persist:

  1. Non-native grasses fuel wildfires. When hundreds of U.S. companies took over thousands of acres of Hawaiian farmland, they artificially transformed it to support cattle ranching, sugarcane plantations, and other businesses. This led to the proliferation of non-native, highly flammable grasses that allowed the Maui wildfires to balloon and cause rapid, widespread destruction.
  1. Business and military interests continue to displace Native Hawaiians. As the presence of American businesses and the military continues to increase, Native Hawaiians are being driven out of their land and homes. In recent decades, the rising cost of living has outpaced the average income of Maui residents — particularly for the Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders who have lived on and enriched the island for generations. 

    Mere days after the wildfires ravaged their communities, survivors are reporting that real estate investors are already swooping in, hoping to profit off the crisis by extracting from vulnerable residents.
  1. As climate change worsens, local residents grapple with limited access to water resources. To support the profit-driven tourism industry in Hawai‘i, essential water sources are constantly diverted to beach resorts and golf courses instead of local communities. In recent weeks, under the cover of disaster response, the small number of freshwater streams reserved for local communities have been diverted to fill the reservoirs surrounding luxury housing at a time when the people of Maui need water more than ever.

    Time and time again, the U.S. government has put corporate and military interests ahead of the communities they were elected to serve. This is systemic racism at play — the type of deeply rooted injustice our coalition aims to dismantle. 

    As the people of Maui come together to heal and recover, we echo the demands of Native Hawaiians — who are calling on political leaders to show up for local communities by restoring water and land rights, holding corporations accountable, and addressing long-standing inequities to help Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders thrive. 
What to Read, How to Act, and Where to Donate 

Keep scrolling to learn more about the larger forces behind Maui’s wildfires, and what you can do to hold institutions accountable and support local communities in driving a more equitable recovery. 

📖 Read More: 

📝 Take Action: 

  • Sign this petition from the Hawai‘i Alliance for Progressive Action (HAPA), which calls on local government to keep real estate speculators from exploiting communities in crisis. 
  • Share this video from Aina Momona, imploring travelers to cancel their vacation plans to Maui as local communities heal and recover from the wildfires. 

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