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For YSPH student, Maui wildfires are the latest consequence of the island’s colonialist history

September 20, 2023
by Colin Poitras

When Bryce Takenaka, PhD ’27, heard about the devastating wildfires in Maui his first thought was with the people of the island, their well-being, and their safety.

For Takenaka, the wildfires that destroyed Lāhainā town and took the lives of 97 people were his worst fears realized – the culmination of centuries of colonialist marginalization of Hawai’i’s indigenous people and longstanding abuse and exploitation of the island’s rich natural resources. Once known as the “Venice of the Pacific”, Lāhainā was the capital of the Kingdom of Hawai’i from 1820 to 1845.

“The Lāhainā wildfires did not result from a natural catastrophe nor a single incident but were a product of settler capitalism, imperialism, and colonialism,” Takenaka said in an online resource he created listing donation sites to help the indigenous people of Maui after the fires. “This crisis underscores the elevation and prioritization of tourism above the well-being of Kānaka and the local residents of Hawai’i. This is the consequence of the chronic neglect of sustainable ways of living.”

Although he was born and raised in Honolulu, Takenaka does not consider himself “Kānaka Maoli” or Native Hawaiian. He is kama’āina, a local resident. Still, he is proud of his origin and maintains a strong connection to the region, its rich culture, and its people (Hawaiians call this concept pilina), which is why the Lāhainā fires resonate so deeply within him. And while media outlets continue their due diligence in reporting on the latest investigations into the fires, the death toll, and the rebuilding process, Takenaka feels many are neglecting to mention the historical underpinnings that created the conditions that led to the tragedy, particularly how U.S. colonization and capitalism contributed to its cause.

Understanding the root cause of the tragedy is important to Takenaka as a future community-based public health professional. He has a bachelor’s degree in public health from Lindenwood University, a master’s degree in epidemiology from Saint Louis University, and he is pursuing a PhD at the Yale School of Public Health in Social and Behavior Sciences. If there is one thing he learned in his training, it is the knowledge that sustainable solutions are more likely to succeed when local communities are centered and continuously involved in decision-making. He hopes this kind of locally driven leadership will be restored in Maui as the island rebuilds.

For Takenaka, the tragedy that beset Maui in 2023 actually began centuries earlier with the invasion of English colonizer James Cook in 1778, the subsequent overthrowing of the Hawaiian Kingdom’s Queen Lili’uokalani in 1893, and the United States' illegal annexation and occupation of the Hawaiian islands in 1898. Over time, corporate successors depleted Maui’s natural resources that once supported local fishponds and farms. Local water systems were redirected to support large sugar and pineapple plantations. Today, those water resources support golf courses, resorts, and other products of the tourism trade. When market pressures forced plantation owners to abandon their properties years later, invasive buffelgrass and guinea grass that had been brought in from Africa to control erosion quickly consumed the plantations and spread across the island. Those highly flammable tall grasses – 10 times denser than the island’s native vegetation – provided critical fuel for the fast-moving 2023 wildfires.

Takenaka points out that capitalist greed still permeates the island today. Some Maui residents, he said, were subjected to plantation disaster capitalism when they received cold calls from real estate investors interested in buying their ancestral lands while they were still grieving their losses and focused on their own survival.

It is all of those underlying circumstances that made the Maui wildfires the enormous tragedy they were, Takenaka said. He wants people to know the fires were not an isolated, random event.

“The wildfires were not a static event,” Takenaka said. “It’s not like this single moment, this single disaster that happened. It was a combination of different, very complex things that first happened centuries ago and that have developed and grown and been perpetuated.”

As the Lāhainā community begins to recover and rebuild, Takenaka sees an opportunity for social justice and a new beginning for the native people of Maui to rebuild on their own terms. There is talk of long-overdue reparations and the island’s indigenous community has banded together insisting they have a greater say in the island’s restoration.

While the future course of Lahaina town remains uncertain, repercussions from the wildfires will likely continue for some time to come.

“The psychological toll of the wildfires on the affected community is likely to be long-lasting, given its devastation to natural resources and places where people have lived, worked, and built relationships,” said YSPH Associate Professor Sarah Lowe, a clinical psychologist specializing in the long-term mental health consequences of traumatic events. “In addition to the fires themselves, the long-term impact should be anticipated given the economic and community stressors in its wake. Massive displacement has the potential to strain social relationships and community resources, increasing risk for long-term mental health difficulties.”

To offset these risks, Lowe said the community should invest financial and social resources to support psychological first aid, culturally appropriate services, and strategies that harness the community’s existing strengths.

The potential health impact of the Maui wildfires also extends far beyond the direct injuries and death toll, said YSPH Assistant Professor Kai Chen, whose research focuses on climate change, air pollution, and human health. Wildfires can result in poor air quality that affects the health of not only those living in the immediate vicinity of the fires but also people living hundreds of miles away, Chen said. Poor air quality has been shown to increase respiratory illnesses such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cardiovascular diseases, and even contribute to adverse birth outcomes such as low birth weight and shorter gestation.

Anyone interested in helping the people of Maui can find donation and assistance information on Bryce Takenaka’s X (formerly Twitter) account @brycetakenaka.

Submitted by Colin Poitras on September 20, 2023