The words “opening ceremony” do not do justice to what I witnessed at Neal Blaisdell Center on September 1. It was the first of 10 action-packed days of the International Union for Conservation of Nature World Conservation Congress, carrying a weighty theme: “Planet at the Crossroads.”
Certainly, many of those working tirelessly in various sustainability sectors clamored to see President Obama take the stage that morning. While the president’s visit eluded the security-laden arena, I realized the true stars of the show were already in position.
In fact, I reflected later that his visit was and would have been a distraction from the presence of the prestigious leaders in the room: the wāhine and kāne from OHA, The Nature Conservancy, various hula hālau and other organizations that protect the people, places and culture of Hawai‘i. These were not the leaders those focused on Obama came to see, yet these were the leaders that we all needed to see.
As the days of the conference wore on, there was no shortage of opportunities to learn about the world and for the world to learn about Hawai‘i. After asking a friend about a session she’d attended, what struck her most was the pain a panelist expressed after overhearing some international attendees mention their surprise that Hawaiians existed.
When she said that, I shared that feeling with a heaviness on my heart. These were not random people. These were people that had a strong enough connection to conservation that they felt the significant investment to attend the conference – both in time and money – was worth it. Clearly, a great deal of work remains to indigenize conservation.
Luckily, not only were there numerous examples of indigenized conservation efforts in Hawai‘i, the 10-day gathering offered coveted time to share with other intrepid efforts across the oceans.
I was lucky enough to sit next to two aboriginal elders from Australia during one session. They were with a group of nine, representing five different tribes eager to connect with folks on the ground in Hawai‘i. With absolute hospitality, folks in Papakōlea, Kupu, Ulupō Heiau, and Hui Mālama O Ke Kai opened their spaces and hearts to these new friends.
The similarities between struggles were balanced by the similarities between opportunities and impacts. The strength of the efforts to indigenize not only conservation, but law, economies, education and more, grows through these bonds that bridge oceans.
Mahalo to the Papakolea Board and Stone Series ‘ohana and alaka‘i; Aunty Gina Carroll and Kamuela Bannister at Kupu’s Net Shed; Kihei de Silva and Kaleo Wong at Ulupo Heiau; Charnay Kalama, Aunty JoAnn Marks, and the Hui Malama O Ke Kai alaka‘i.