Carceral Conservationism: Contested Landscapes and Technologies of Dispossession at Ka‘ena Point, Hawai‘i
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Carceral Conservationism:
Contested Landscapes and Technologies of Dispossession at Ka‘ena Point, Hawai‘i

“Don’t turn your back to the ocean,” Kaula Crawford-Kapanui warned me on a morning visit to Ka‘ena in March 2014 as we climbed down wet rocks between sets of bone-breaking waves to gather hā‘uke‘uke, brilliant purple, sun-shaped shells thick with salty meat. While we gathered, our friends “threw net” to catch moi, manini, kala, and other fish in reefs they had known their whole lives. One of the fishermen, Al Sabagala, returned the first he caught, a tradition in Hawai‘i and other places where fishing is a way of life. “It’s all about the universe,” he told me, smiling. “That’s how it works, give back and expect nothing in return.”1 Throughout the day, Sabagala and his fishing partner caught a large cooler full of fish. We saw a monk seal swimming in tide pools and an eel’s head resting in a cove, its jaws wide open and the rest of its body torn off by a predator. Perhaps because of the abundant life and isolation of Ka‘ena from the parking lots, highways, and malls that shape the rest of the island of O‘ahu, people affectionately refer to Ka‘ena as “in the back.”2 As in, when I ran into Sabagala’s cousin at a takeout in Wai‘anae, he told me: “Al went fishing in the back last weekend,” indicating that Ka‘ena exists as a space somewhat outside the relentless forward motion of what capitalist developers consider “progress.”

At the same time, Ka‘ena’s landscape reflects the geographies of colonial modernity, exemplified by a 630-meter fence constructed in 2011 that wraps around the westernmost tip of the island from shoreline to shoreline. It is two meters tall with aluminum posts connected by wire mesh with caged gates for people to pass through. To get there, one walks over rocky footpaths to reach the fence, and it imposes a jarring presence amid the sand, rocks, and boundless sky. The State of Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) oversaw fence construction, with the stated purpose of keeping out predators such as mice, rats, mongooses, cats, and dogs to protect wedge-tailed shearwater birds, Laysan albatrosses, and three species of endangered plants.3 [End Page 695]

Sabagala and others who have fished at Ka‘ena for generations see the fence differently: as part of a strategy to displace fishers with ancestral ties to the place to make space for tourists. Sabagala explained bitterly that the fence is meant to keep out “dog, rats, and us.” “Us” refers to lawai‘a, a Hawaiian term describing people who fish who are Hawaiian as well as nonnative locals.4 During fence construction from November 10, 2010, to March 30, 2011, Sabagala and other fishers received $300 fines because of increased enforcement against camping in the area.5 In response, they joined together as the Lawai‘a Action Network and successfully fought their tickets in court.6 William Aila, the chair of the DLNR at the time, explained that State policies have never prohibited fishing and that the citations targeted homeless people.7 While the fence and its related mechanisms manage the behaviors and lifestyles of fishers and people who live outside, it produces a secure space for hikers and recreational environmentalists to visit, take pictures of birds and seals, then leave.

The fence also stands as an element of a vastly militarized region fashioned by the confluence of fencing and environmental conservation. Figure 1 depicts Mākua, five miles south of Ka‘ena Point, where a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire surrounds the valley that is now a military reservation. The US military displaced its residents and seized this land after the Pearl Harbor bombing. As the army previously used this land for target practice, the community group Mālama Mākua initiated a lawsuit that has prevented live-fire training since 1998. Further, to protect the over forty endangered species in the valley and ensure compliance with the Endangered Species Act, the military now...