I've been thinking a lot about the governor's meeting — you can listen here, thanks to KKCR — and what it really meant. Though Civil Beat portrayed the Kauai crowd as a bunch of ungrateful, rude hicks fixated on the Public Lands Development Corp. (Act 55), the discontent is a lot deeper and broader than that.
Yes, opposition to the PLDC is strong and growing — some are calling it the new Superferry — but fishermen and ocean users who are worried about plans to expand the humpback whale sanctuary had an equally strong presence, as did the anti-GMO contingent.
There's a common complaint in all of these concerns, and it's about centralized decision-making, centralized control of land, water, resources, food. Centralization works to disenfranchise local communities, make people feel like they aren't being heard.
So it really didn't help when the guv kept deflecting criticism by telling people to take their complaints about GMOs and the PLDC to the Legislators, because they make the laws.
Yeah, technically, but we all know the guv not only helps set the Legislature's agenda — the PLDC is a key component of Abercrombie's “New Day in Hawaii” — but holds veto power over any bill.
And though DLNR Director William Aila patiently explained that the state is partnering with the feds in many of the controversial ocean initiatives, I'm not sure too many of us believe that relationship is equal – not with the feds holding the purse strings, not to mention the guns.
The Administration showed it was particularly out of touch when the issue of GMOs arose, as it did right off the bat, when Councilwoman JoAnn Yukimura asked the first question: how come no organic farmers in the Kekaha ag park? Why, they're welcome, of course, replied the Dept. of Ag's Scott Enright, who talked about how tough it was to make a profit with small farms. “But we can accommodate them if they come forward,” he said.
“Not in the GMO fields,” someone yelled from the crowd. “The air and water is all contaminated over there.” And off it went. The guv, trying to regain control, fumbled badly, telling folks the “philosophy of agriculture” is something they needed to take up with the Lege, because “we're trying to encourage agriculture any way we can.”
Scott inadvertently threw more fuel on the fire. “I realize there's a passion when it comes to GMOs, but the biotech industry is legal.”
“That's the problem,” someone yelled.
“We're talking about government, and you're part of it,” another person called out.
There you have it, the crux of the issue. It seems people are increasingly inclined to look at all the many factions of government as a single entity that isn't going to fix anything, because it's part of the problem, in bed with special interests, rather than serving the public good.
"We don't trust you," was a common refrain. And that's hard to hear when you're in government because you truly believe in public service, as many public workers doubtless do.
Though I'm not sure the guv and his Cabinet got it, there was a take-away message, and it's this: It's not enough anymore to give a community money — in this case, $71.6 million of the state's $469 million capital improvement budget, which one man later characterized as “a little crumb.” People also want a direct say in what happens in their community — hence the uproar over the PLDC, with its omnipotent, Honolulu-based, five-member board of bureaucrats and developers.
They also want to feel like government shares their concerns, and is looking out for them. So the biggest gaffe of the night came when a woman who identified herself as a healthcare worker came to the microphone and spoke of “seeing people every day who are really ill from the effects of Pioneer, Syngenta, the GMO spraying.” She then said a Kauai oncologist had told her the westside has the state's highest incidence of colon, breast and cervical cancer.” Is anybody looking into this? she wanted know.
The guv's press secretary, Donalyn Dela Cruz (whose brother Donovan, a state senator, co-sponsored the PLDC bill), tried to dismiss her with with a trite, “Thank you for bringing the issue to the table.” That's when the crowd started taking on the stirrings of an angry mob and a man yelled out, incredulously, “Somebody has to address it!”
An awkward silence followed and finally state Health Director Loretta Fuddy said no GMO-human health studies were under way in Hawaii. “I know that nationally and internationally there is a concern and they are looking at it... but we don't have the science yet.”
Which leads quite naturally to the question: since Hawaiii is ground zero, the world capital of open-air experimental testing of genetically modified crops, and a major producer of GM seed, why aren't there any health or environmental studies going on?
I recently did a short piece on the Department of Water's decision to settle a class action lawsuit with Syngenta, in part because they don't believe the pesticide is currently in wide use. So I called Syngenta to ask if they are still using atrazine on their westside corn crops.
But they never called back, because they don't have to. They're not required to answer to the public, to be held accountable for agricultural and business practices that greatly affect our community.
And that's exactly what folks rightly fear will happen with the PLDC, and the ocean sanctuary. More layers between them and the decision-makers, no local accountability. Because as we've seen over and over again, it's so easy to blow off the citizenry when you can do so with impunity.