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Puʻulani community work day (Photo courtesy: Leah Bremer)

Just five years ago on Oʻahu, 100% of the trees at Puʻulani (heavenly ridge)—an area that sits above the loʻi kalo (taro patches) in Heʻeia—were non-native species. Since then, a partnership between an interdisciplinary research team from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and community based organization Kākoʻo ʻŌiwi has worked with thousands of community members to transition Puʻulani to a biodiverse and culturally valuable agroforest (integration of trees and shrubs into crop and animal farming systems to create environmental, economic and social benefits) that provides materials for lei, food, and, most importantly, opportunities for the community to access and connect with the forest.

two people standing and smiling next to a plant
Tamara Ticktin and Tressa Hoppe help to net loulu to protect them from the coconut rhinoceros beetle.
(Photo courtesy: Leah Bremer)

It is estimated that approximately 40% of agricultural lands in Hawaiʻi are un-managed, and a similar percentage of conservation lands are considered low-priority and non-native dominant. The project at Puʻulani has important potential to inform restoration beyond Kākoʻo ʻŌiwi and Heʻeia. Prior to 1778, Puʻulani was covered in Indigenous agroforests and native forests. Then, it was used for cattle grazing. After grazing ended, non-native trees and other plants moved in.

When the team began the restoration, Puʻulani was covered with mostly Java plum, fiddlewood and octopus trees, which are typical of non-native forests across low elevation lands in Hawaiʻi. In 2018, they selectively cleared the non-native forest on the eastern face of Puʻulani. In a huge community effort in 2019, the group planted more than 2,000 culturally valuable and useful plants of 25 species. They selected plants for the first round of planting that feed people spiritually and intellectually: lei plants, plants used in lāʻau lapaʻau (traditional Hawaiian medicine) and ceremonial plants. All but three of the original plants are native; the others are non-native and non-invasive plants with important uses to the community.

“Research carried out at Puʻulani broadly aims to understand how different metrics of restoration success change over the transition from non-native forest to culturally important agroforest,” according to the researchers. “We are currently tracking changes in 1) soil health and microbes, 2) the capacity of agroforests to sequester carbon above-ground and in the soil, 3) growth, survival, and understory cover of the plants, and 4) community members’ connection to the site. Research is evolving and new projects will continue to help us understand best practices and benefits for implementing restoration through agroforestry.”

Importance of agroforestry systems

person kneeling next to a plant
Maile Wong measures a newly planted maiʻa iholena lele (Hawaiian variety of banana). (Photo courtesy: Leah Bremer)

Agroforestry systems provide a suite of benefits, including food production, erosion control, carbon storage and biodiversity. They also provide important climate resilience benefits, including the ability to survive periods of drought and flood events. Importantly, Indigenous agroforestry was widespread in Hawaiʻi prior to European colonization. While many of these systems went into decline with colonization, there is great interest in their restoration today.

Kākoʻo ʻŌiwi’s mission is to perpetuate the spiritual and cultural practices of Native Hawaiians, and agroforestry is an important part of their strategic plan for restoration of the nearly 200 acres of upland area now dominated by non-native forest. Puʻulani is the highest point that is easily accessible to the staff and community at Kākoʻo ʻŌiwi, and so it was selected as an ideal place to carry out the first agroforestry restoration effort. The participatory biocultural restoration is set up as an opportunity to learn and use lessons learned to inform future restoration across the other upland areas that Kākoʻo ʻŌiwi stewards.

people standing in front of a large tree
UH Puʻulani research team in front of a native loulu. From left, Angel Melone, Maile Wong, Leah Bremer, Zoe Hastings, Matthew Kahoʻohanohano and Tressa Hoppe. Missing: Tamara Ticktin. (Photo courtesy: Leah Bremer)

The research team includes UHERO, WRRC, School of Life Sciences, Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Management, Pacific Biosciences Research Center, Heʻeia National Estuarine Research Reserve and UH Sea Grant College Program.

The UH research team would like to mahalo its partners: Kākoʻo ʻŌiwi, the Heʻeia National Estuarine Research Reserve and the many volunteers who make Puʻulani thrive. Funders include the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Social Science Research Institute, the UH Sea Grant College Program, the National Science Foundation, the Heʻeia National Estuarine Research Reserve and the Kaʻulunani program (Division of Forestry and Wildlife). For more information or to visit and/or volunteer at Puʻulani, contact Leah Bremer (lbremer@hawaii.edu), Zoe Hastings (zchastin@hawaii.edu), Tamara Ticktin (ticktin@hawaii.edu) or Maile Wong (mailekw@hawaii.edu). See Kākoʻo ʻŌiwi volunteer opportunities for work days.

To read the entire story, visit the UHERO website. UHERO is housed in UH Mānoa’s College of Social Sciences.

yellow flower
Native wilwili (Erythrina sandwicensis) flowering for the first time in August 2022. Wiliwili were planted in front of all research plots, as moʻolelo tell that wiliwili capture unwanted energy and provide protection. Wiliwili wood was also used to make surfboards and ʻama for canoes. (Photo courtesy: Maile Wong)
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