man in front of taro fields
Devin Forrest

Growing up in Kauaʻi’s lush green valleys around Hanalei, helping out in family taro fields as a child, and thriving in the rich culture that binds the island’s north shore community together was the upbringing of University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa William S. Richardson School of Law student Devin Forrest.

So when the devastating floods of 2018 hit Kauaʻi farmers—destroying crops and traditional water flow—he knew he had to help.

Forrest’s pro bono help—both before and after he was accepted to the UH law school—has been recognized nationally in the spring 2021 issue of the National Jurist magazine. Forrest is one of four pro bono heroes profiled from law schools across the country for the hundreds of hours of free legal assistance they provided in their communities.

“After the floods, the farmers found that where the water comes from was state land and they would need an easement but needed research on how old the system was,” said Forrest. “They had always cleaned it and always managed it. Forever. It wasn’t until it was destroyed that they needed help with the water.”

Validating taro farmers’ rights

With a masters degree in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian language) from UH Hilo, and family members still deeply involved in taro farming, Forrest volunteered his expertise to translate old documents to validate the rights of the farmers to have access to the water supply. His translations in spring 2019 helped lay the legal groundwork for an easement and water lease that would give them perpetual future access to their loʻi kalo irrigation system.

Those documents show that the close-knit families historically cultivated taro on approximately 100 acres in the northern valleys, and have been working this land using traditional methods for hundreds of years.

“You can’t get exact dates but you can estimate from when the chiefs were ruling,” said Forrest. “The farming areas were being used, and an irrigation system created. We don’t know the exact date, but we know there was farming in that area at least in 1500.”

Providing hundreds of pro bono hours

Professor Kapua Sproat, director of Ka Huli Ao Center for Excellence in Native Hawaiian Law at the UH law school, was already offering legal assistance to her home community on Kauaʻi and the farmers of the Waiʻoli Valley Taro Hui in particular, and she helped facilitate Forrest’s involvement.

Forrest has continued to provide hundreds more hours of help as part of his clinical work at Richardson law school. That help has been invaluable, said Sproat.

“Devin’s efforts epitomize what we seek to do at Ka Huli Ao. Through our law clinics, for example, we bring together students, community and decisionmakers to work in partnership on behalf of our natural resources and our Indigenous culture and lifeways that are dependent upon them,” said Sproat. “This is the best case scenario where ʻŌiwi (Native Hawaiians) like Devin and me can take Western knowledge and legal skills in particular home to the communities where we were raised to ensure that our cultural practices can survive the transition to a modern era. This has been transformative for Devin and the rest of the clinicians, and we are incredibly proud of what we have been able to accomplish together.”

UH law Dean Camille Nelson is also proud of what students like Forrest offer in passion, energy and expertise to their communities as part of the clinic and pro bono programs at the UH law school.

“It is always inspiring to see the impact of what you have been learning in action. Devin’s efforts demonstrate the transformative potential of experiential learning, and Ka Huli Ao is also to be thanked for guiding this opportunity,” said Nelson. “Devin’s ability to combine his experience, education, and passion exemplifies the tremendous impact Richardson lawyers have throughout Hawaiʻi, and beyond.”

This work is an example of UH Mānoa’s goal of Becoming a Native Hawaiian Place of Learning (PDF), and UH Mānoa’s goal of Enhancing Student Success (PDF), two of four goals identified in the 2015–25 Strategic Plan (PDF), updated in December 2020.

For more on Forrest, see the UH law school website.

–By Beverly Creamer