There’s a Long History of Racism and Exploitation Behind Kaua’i’s GMO Controversy

A Guest Post by Sheena Iwamoto

In the summer of 2013, I returned home to Kaua’i after finishing my second year at Scripps College. I was born and raised on the island, the oldest in the Hawaiian chain. That summer, my dad had finally, reluctantly, agreed to teach me how to drive.

Because he grew up on Kaua’i, he is familiar with many of the older, hidden roads that go through the rural mountain areas. He decided to have me drive on the back roads of Kapa’a town, which are less travelled than others. As I drove along curved roads overshadowed by trees, I noticed that something had been spray-painted across the gravel: “NO GMO.”


I had only a few seconds to glimpse the words before our truck passed over them, but this proved not to be an issue, as we passed two or three other wooden signs on the side of the road bearing similar messages about genetically modified organisms. Back home, as we watched the news on television, I continued to see media coverage (like this, this, and this) of huge crowds of people, including women, and children, carrying colorful signs and protesting loudly at anti-GMO rallies. A number of Facebook groups popped up seemingly overnight on my newsfeed, sharing news about environmental justice and information on GMO companies. I was seeing resistance everywhere I went, and this was the first time I had truly seen this level of mobilization in my community. After doing some research, I understood that there was a reason for such large-scale protest.

Kauai’i protestors fight for corporate transparency.

The west side of Kaua’i has been occupied by a number of powerful, global corporations, including Syngenta, DuPont Pioneer, BASF Plant Sciences, Monsanto, and Dow AgroSciences. These multi-billion dollar corporations are involved in producing Hawai’i’s largest agricultural product: seeds. According to a study by the Hawaii Crop Seed Association (HCSA), the seed industry in Hawai’i is valued at more than 240 million dollars a year—twice the amount made by sugar, which is the state’s second largest commodity. These corporate giants have used Hawai’i since the 1990s to engineer and test genetically modified plants designed to be more resistant to pests, herbicides, and drought.

Recently, public attention has turned to these corporations due to several incidents at a nearby school where groups of students have collapsed and fallen ill. Residents who live near the crop testing areas have complained repeatedly about asthma, skin rashes, nosebleeds, and migraines. While a relationship remains unconfirmed, some physicians and residents of Kaua’i believe that these health concerns could be linked to the pesticides sprayed by the corporations on their test crops.

Thousands of Kaua’i residents lobby the government in support of Bill 2491.

In response to the appearance of these health concerns, the Kaua’i community rose to challenge the corporations and the use of pesticides on their island. Seeking transparency and accountability from the companies, Bill 2491 was proposed. The bill requires disclosures on the kinds of restricted pesticides being used, the use of buffer zones between pesticide applications and areas such as schools, parks, private residences, and hospitals, along with an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which will assess the positive and negative health and environmental effects of agricultural operations by the corporations.

The law was passed in November 2013, and three of the large biotech companies were quick to respond to its passing. DuPont, Syngenta, and Agrigenetics, which is affiliated with Dow AgroSciences, have since filed lawsuits against Kaua’i County, claiming that the law is unconstitutional.

While unfortunate, the lawsuits put forward by the corporate giants are unsurprising. At the root of them is the corporations’ strict adherence to the capitalist spirit: profit comes before anything else. In response to repeated pleas from the community to release basic disclosure about the ingredients in pesticides used on GMO crops, to assess the risk to those who live on Kaua’i, corporations have stated that they are unable to release information because it will make them less competitive with other agribusinesses.

By dismissing the human lives that are endangered on Kaua’i, corporations frame the health implications of pesticide use as collateral casualties, or “unintentional” costs in the quest for a more competitive product. Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman wrote of this specific phenomenon in his book, Consuming Life. Bauman argues that the concept of “collateral casualties” is a tool used to excuse, justify, and exempt the punishment of actions that cause harm by claiming that they are unintentional.

In trying to justify their lack of transparency about their pesticide use, the biotech corporations unveiled an unfortunate truth: corporations believe that the pursuit of economic profit gives them a legitimate excuse to ignore the potentially unethical nature of their practices. To understand how we arrived at a situation wherein human lives are totally disregarded in pursuit of profit, it is necessary to understand Hawai’i’s long, racially structured history of colonialism.

This is not the first time Hawai’i has been occupied and exploited by capitalists. While Hawai’i is now considered one of the United States, the state also has a complicated colonial history. Prior to colonization, the economy of the Kingdom of Hawai’i relied on a balanced, communal use of the products of the land and the sea and fostered interdependence between people. However, when white British colonizer Captain James Cook and his crew came upon Hawai’i in 1778, he introduced a new economic system: capitalism.

The theories of Antonio Gramsci, a formative labor activist and social theorist, are useful in better understanding the consequences of this economic system. Gramsci argued that dominant groups in society use ideology, which can be defined as a set of cultural beliefs, attitudes, or values, to create and maintain their power in society. In this case, Captain Cook introduced both capitalism and the dominant ideologies that support, justify, and reproduce it, thus forcefully changing the economic and moral structure of Hawai’i. Simultaneously, he established himself and his fellow colonizers in positions of power over the Native Hawaiians.

Hawai’i cane workers during colonial era.

According to social theorist William Robinson, whose research focuses primarily on theories of globalization and transnationalism, Hawai’i is one of many examples of the spread of global capitalism. As European colonial expansion spread to many areas around the world, capitalism was introduced as a powerful economic system that had extensive social effects on the communities where it was installed. Capitalism became a formative economic system that ultimately worked to maintain the power of colonizers in their newly colonized lands.

Intimately tied to the spread of capitalism during the colonial era was the formation of race-based ideologies. According to American sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant, who are best known for their theory of racial formation, race is the concept that connects physical differences between human bodies with social conflicts and the larger societal structure. The formation of race as a force affecting social structure is rooted in multiple historical projects, or processes that gave certain identities and types of bodies power over others. European exploration was one of these many projects.

As European colonizers spread across the globe in search of new trade routes, they “discovered” indigenous people who physically looked very different from the human beings they knew. According to Joe Feagin, a social theorist who studies race, the representation and interpretation of indigenous peoples as “Other,” or as lesser, was one that justified the exploitation, enslavement, and genocide of indigenous peoples. Consequently, indigenous people were constructed as less than human, while Europeans like Captain Cook, who named themselves “children of God,” were cast by racist ideology as heroes fulfilling the noble task of  “civilizing” indigenous communities via new economic and social structures. In reality, white colonizers used this racial ideology in order to justify the exploitation of indigenous people for their own profit.

This racist ideology was very much present in the colonization of Hawai’i. The process of land division, called the Mahele of 1848, combined with a ruling that allowed haole, or foreigners, to purchase and own land, transferred most of Hawai’i’s previously communal land to white colonizers. Unfamiliar with the notion of land as a commodity, many Native Hawaiians did not understand the Mahele, and did not stake claims to the land. By completely changing the economy, white colonizers not only established new values, they also established themselves as the dominant class, taking quickly to the unethical exploitation of Native Hawaiians in the sugar industry. Soon, white sugar planters became a political force due to their economic power in Hawai’i.

The power gained by whites during the Mahele of 1848 lead to the eventual overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawai’i by white American citizens in 1893. This power continues to manifest itself today in the form of systemic racism, which Feagin defines as the “complex array of antiblack practices, unjustly gained political-economic power of whites, the continuing economic and other resource inequalities along racial lines, and the white racist ideologies and attitudes created to maintain and rationalize white privilege and power.” Feagin’s theory of systemic racism does not only apply to black people. In Hawai’i, the capitalist economy unjustly served to impoverish Native Hawaiians while making Europe and the colonizers wealthier as they exploited both human labor and natural resources via agricultural enterprises.

Generations later, race privilege, economic wealth, and sociopolitical power in Hawai’i has been reproduced and maintained primarily by whites, while Native Hawaiians struggle to provide for themselves. A study done by Kamehameha Schools shows that Native Hawaiian families have the lowest mean family income of all major ethnic groups in the state, while whites make the second highest income next to ethnically Asian residents. Native Hawaiians also suffer a higher unemployment rate as compared with the state average. Lastly, mortality rates for cancer, diabetes, and heart disease are higher for Native Hawaiians than for other major ethnic groups in the state, as the vast majority of Native Hawaiian adults are overweight or obese, again, far outpacing the statewide average. These health disparities affecting Native Hawaiian communities mirror those affecting the black community. As Feagin argues, racism is key in shaping the health of communities and their access to resources such as adequate housing and medical care. Ultimately, these resources determine the longevity of human lives. Given the very real implications on the heath of Native Hawaiian people, there is a severe need to address the roots of systemic racism that exist in Hawai’i today.

While the ideologies supporting systemic racism have changed their focus from the biological and cultural myths celebrated during the colonial era, today, it is clear that the reproduction of power has continued. The corporate giants on Kaua’i, for example, are primarily located on the Southwest shore of the island, a working-class community with one of the largest Native Hawaiian populations in the state. This town is one of two areas on Kaua’i that are held in trust for Native Hawaiians under the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1921, which was created to support the self-sufficiency and self-determination of Native Hawaiians.

The fact that these exploitative large-scale agribusinesses are located in an underserved working-class community with a high number of Native Hawaiian and other racial minorities is not a coincidence. Farm work is a classed and racialized system of employment reserved for working-class people of color, who have historically lacked access to economic stability, as well as educational resources and privileges. Biotech companies such as Syngenta and Monsanto hire working-class community members on Kaua’i to labor in their fields and offices, while simultaneously refusing to release any information about the pesticides they use. The lack of respect for human rights and transparency on the part of the corporations reveals the racist and capitalist ideologies that inform their decisions to push for economic profit at the expense of human health.

Despite the presence of these global corporations and the political, social, and economic power held by those who own them, many Kaua’i citizens have come together to resist these unfair practices. The resistance posed by the Kaua’i community in a move to protect their own rights speaks to our ability as individuals to create change in our communities. The moments of protest on Kaua’i created spaces of empowerment, resistance, and consciousness-raising for many Kaua’i residents. One protest gathered an estimated 4,000 people, culminating in a march that is being called the largest in the island’s history. The passing of Bill 2491 into law, despite the attempts of transnational elite corporations to oppose it, shows the power of the people to truly fight for and create change in their communities. As the collective struggle on Kaua’i has demonstrated, the mobilization of communities in the face of unjust systems such as racism and capitalism, among others, is a powerful move to challenge who can make the decisions that shape our lives. The belief in the potential of action and struggle to create change, the driving force behind many of the protests, rallies, and organizing on Kaua’i, is one that allows individuals, groups, and communities to take the first steps towards creating true social change in our society.

Since the writing of this story, a federal judge ruled in August that Bill 2491 is invalid because it unfairly targets one industry. On September 24, several non-profit groups filed an appeal of the decision.

DSCN0046Sheena Iwamoto is a senior at Scripps College in Claremont, California, dual majoring in Sociology and Asian American Studies. She was born and raised in Kapa’a, Hawai’i. She is passionate about issues of social justice and the creation of empowering educational spaces.


Join The Conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s