Eye of the Storm Leadership
150 Ideas, Stories, Quotes, and Excercises On The
Art and Politics of Managing Human Conflicts
by Peter Adler, Ph.D.
Writings > Pig Wars 

From Oxtail Soup for the Island Soul, Peter S. Adler, Ox Bow Press, 2001.

Oxtail Soup for the Island Soul


A pig, Ambrose Bierce once opined in the Devil’s Dictionary, is “an animal closely allied to the human race by the splendor and vivacity of its appetite.â€�  On the Island of Hawai‘i, the “Pig Warsâ€� started when the State of Hawai‘i Department of Forestry and Wildlife built two stretches of fence in the Kohala Mountains in the Pu‘u o ‘Umi Forest Reserve. One fence was intended to protect a sensitive environmental area between two steep cliffs from the feral version of Willy Boy Kokubun’s cousins. The other was part of an intended 1,500 acre endangered plant exclosure.

Both fences deeply alarmed local hunters. Angry complaints were voiced in the press. Letters and phone calls were made to local politicians. Portions of the fence were vandalized and Big Island Forestry and Wildlife employees received death threats. In the U.S., most environmental “warsâ€� tend to start this way, with recriminations and threats, with anger and hurt, with escalations into legislative and judicial forums. Once they commence, and once they are politicized, these fights can be filled with invective and unbecoming tactics straight out of Sun Tzu’s Art of War. But every once in a while, people try something different. 

It is late in  December. On a wet, cool night very close to Christmas, twenty people are gathered around worn benches and rough plywood tables in the clubhouse of the Laupahoehoe and Hamakua Hawaiian Civic Club. Laupahoehoe is an aging sugar plantation community surrounded by remnant cane fields and, above the cane fields, forest. Hamkua is the name of the local district. In the town itself, most of the wooden houses are small and have corrugated iron roofs. The clubhouse is slowly returning to the elements, a victim of age and termites. Nonetheless, it is clean and dignified. It is freshly swept and someone has set a vase of newly picked and fragrant gardenias on the front table.

The group that has assembled inside is known as “The NAWG,� which is an acronym for Natural Areas Working Group. It includes representatives from three Big Island hunting groups, two local community associations, the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, the Audubon Society, the National Biological Survey, and the State of Hawai‘i’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife. My job, as one of two co-mediators, is to structure a process of communication and negotiation and increase the odds that new solutions to some vexing old problems can be invented. My co-mediator’s name is Alice Paet Ah Sing. We have been teamed up by the State of Hawai‘i to try and help do some problem solving.

This meeting is the NAWG’s fifteenth in eight months, and the specific task is to put the finishing touches on a document that contains 50 recommendations aimed at resolving long-standing controversies between hunters, environmentalists, and state foresters. The presenting issue is the impact of ungulates (hoofed animals) in Hawai‘i’s forests. Pigs are everywhere in Hawai‘i, including my neighborhood in urban Honolulu, but the geographic epicenter of this particular conflict is the 80,000 acres making up the Big Island’s Natural Area Reserves (NARs) near Laupahoehoe, Hilo, and Waimea.

Natural Area Reserves are ecologically important tracts of land that have been set aside by the state, in perpetuity, as prime examples of Hawai‘i’s extraordinarily diverse environment. There are many different NARs. On O‘ahu, one of them preserves a coastal strand replete with ancient sand dunes. There is another on top of 14,000-foot Mauna Kea that flags a good example of Hawai‘i’s little-known high altitude tundra. The Mauna Kea reserve is, in fact, the remnant of an ancient glacier.  Most reserves, however, seek to sustain and showcase Hawai‘i’s last native rain forests which are perceived to be under siege from both natural and unnatural forces, including pigs. 

Scientists marshal considerable evidence to show that pigs indiscriminately tear through local plant life, particularly in the rain forests, and pave the way for such other invasive pests as mosquitos which carry avian malaria and the banana poka vine which chokes out native trees. Pigs like Willy Boy weigh up to 300 pounds. They are prolific breeders and relentless rooters and cause havoc when left unchecked. A lone pig, say ecologists, can completely denude a large swath of land in a single night. Multiplied many fold, they present a spreading danger to the forest habitats for Hawai‘i’s disappearing native creatures. For biologists, the usual remedy is to exterminate them.

Local hunters, most of whom are Kanaka Maoli, hold a very different view. They have vociferously resisted animal eradication and most attempts to remove them from critical bird and plant habitats. They contest much of the scientific evidence presented by environmentalists and assert that pigs are both an organic part of the landscape and an esteemed cultural and recreational resource. They argue further that, during hard times in economically depressed places like Hamakua on the island of Hawai‘i, they are an economic necessity.

For a variety of reasons, therefore, the pig issue greatly rankles many Kanaka Maoli. Wild pigs are traditional food. They are customarily hunted by Kanaka Maoli men and their dogs, most often with guns, but of late, in the traditional way als with knives and spears. These hog battles are a matter of personal and cultural pride. Pigs figure prominently in Hawaiian cosmology and in the legends of local deities that Hawaiian children still hear at home. For many Kanaka Maoli, pigs are very much part of what is deemed to be “natural.�

In this context, and fueled further by the forces of cultural revitalization, pigs are political and symbolic. Kanaka Maoli activists are asserting strong claims for independence and reparations from both the state and federal governments.  The pig issue adds to this larger debate and involves charges of “eco-imperialismâ€� and a call for Kanaka Maoli dominion over Hawai‘i’s forests. “Why,â€� says one of the hunters, “should some scientist from America get to come here and tell us that this plant or that bird is more important than us? We will decide these things for ourselves.â€�

Which is precisely what the NAWG and this particular mediation effort is all about.

Staked out in the extreme, the opening mediation positions have a Bosnia-like intractability about them. Some members of the working group advocate putting up as many stretches of pig-proof fences as possible, removing the pigs inside, and, over time, expanding the Natural Area Reserve system so that more forest is protected. Others take a polar-opposite approach. They argue that pig populations and hunting opportunities must be expanded, that some of the NARs should be turned into Game Management Areas, and that all existing fences in and around the NARs need to be torn down because they interfere with pig breeding and migration and are dangerous to hikers, hunters, and dogs.

In general, these early arguments have certain weariness about them: the posturing produces a great deal of heat but very little light. At times it feels as if everyone is playing out a pre-choreographed part. In turn, there is also a pattern whereby the natural ideological differences between these camps are exacerbated by a few “conflict junkies� who approach every difference of opinion as a holy war, a personal duel, a general amusement, or as just one more small chance to display the cranky and obstreperous side of their personality.

Luckily, the NAWG is composed of people who hold very strong opinions but who also genuinely want to solve problems and — in the finest tradition of ho‘oponopono, the ancient Kanaka Maoli process of resolving family and clan disputes — seek to “make things right.� There is the inevitable stereotyping, miscommunication, misinformation, noninformation, interpersonal irritation, and battles over process that attend any conflict. Most NAWG members, however, seem preliminarily interested in a search for understanding and agreement.

At the first meeting, pleasantries are exchanged but the underlying mood is dark. People regard one another with suspicion, and everyone eyeballs we mediators since no one quite knows how this process will really work. Then the meeting commences. There are introductions, some perfunctory opening statements, and then we spend two hours negotiating meeting procedures and interpersonal etiquettes. These protocols are extremely important. They provide real rules of engagement, the first tangible agreements, and simple overtures of trust and good will.

At the second and third meetings, and throughout subsequent sessions, the group tackles substance. Despite the heated outbursts which occasionally punctuate the discussions, the group pools critical information. Much of our work as mediators is directed at choreographing and moderating the way ideas, knowledge, data, and assumed wisdom are exchanged. Each group has its “filters� for taking in and giving information. The scientists try to be dispassionate in their presentations which is irksome to the Kanaka Maoli who see them as aloof. The government officials like to think about problems in terms of regulations and political nuances which drives the environmentalists crazy. When the Hawaiians and community people speak, they give long, angry, scolding speeches which irritate the scientists and government people.

These differences in organizational “styleâ€� are part of the ambient conditions of the mediation process. Our goal is to help everyone get the questions right, to manage the multiple layers and conflicting cross-currents of information exchange, and to facilitate mutual interpretation of data so that it produces “usable knowledge.â€�  In the process, the group learns practical and immediate tolerance. When one of the environmentalists makes overly sweeping generalizations, other members of her own coalition rope her back to the table. And when one of the hunters presents a completely ungrounded theory of a pig “motherlandâ€� and radiating migrations from a certain valley, the rest of the group disagrees with him with respect and forbearance.

Real breakthroughs, however, occur when the NAWG works out a common goal and signs off on a series of guiding statements. These “agreements-in-principle� become the beacons that help navigate the group toward specific solutions. They do not specifically solve the dispute but they create the contours and parameters within which agreements can be fashioned later on. In this case, the guiding principles move everyone to common ground.

The principles go like this: Conceptually everyone concurs that more forest areas could be specifically administered for hunting, and that these areas could sustain more pigs. Other areas it is agreed, might be managed in such a way that there are no pigs or the lowest number possible. Everyone acknowledges that local hunters should be the ones to help manage pig numbers by pressuring the pigs out of the high density areas. Finally, it is agreed that proper forest management is not simply the job of DOFAW. The private and civic sectors and abutting communities need to be involved.

The key to making these agreements work will be joint monitoring and “adaptive management� carried out by a set of newly created local entities called regional forest “Management Advisory Councils� (MACs). Each of the councils will be composed of hunters, scientists, environmental advocates, government foresters, and people from nearby towns. The MACs will help organize joint monitoring projects, volunteer efforts, and local educational programs. Each MAC will also send a representative to sit on a central coordinating committee that, for lack of a better title, is initially identified as the “Big MAC.�

Although there are many disagreements on the road to conceptual clarity, the NAWG progressively works through the nuances involved in these agreements. From my point of view, it is gratifying to watch this group of former enemies learn to tolerate, and in some circumstances actually value, differences of opinion. The discussions are still fierce when it comes to content but increasingly they are self-regulating, comfortable, and collegial in style. Each meeting begins and ends with a prayer or chant, sometimes said by a non-Hawaiian. There is humor. People bring food. They mingle at breaks and inquire about each other’s families. They bring small gifts for each other. They tell stories. Over time, they begin to see each other in new and different ways. As co-mediators, Alice and I notice these things. Process, politics, and relationships merge together with substance.

As the fifteenth meeting comes to a close, there is a tangible sense of accomplishment among the community members, hunters, scientists, and state foresters who make up the NAWG. Adversaries who at one time would not even be seen publicly with one another have walked in each other’s shoes, worked side-by-side, and produced some breakthrough agreements that may just make a difference. These agreements won’t solve every problem but they are a start, and everyone knows it.

Just as important is the unique chemistry of peacemaking that has been engaged by the participants. Something that is simultaneously part-Oriental, part-Polynesian, part-Occidental, yet also uniquely and completely “local,� this sustained discussion process has created a sheltered port in the wider storms that attend environmental decision making. But there is something else as well. Beyond the logic of solving problems lies something more ineffable and a part of the way we do things in Hawai‘i. Consensus, builds trusting communities and heals and strengthens places. In this way, the body politic’s sense of hope is renewed.

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