Back to Hawai’i for Part four of A Creation Story, where we see what happens when dormancy comes to an end and it’s time to rise up.
Want to start at the beginning? Good call.
“As long as there shall be stones, the seeds of fire shall not die.” – Lu Xun (1881-1936), Chinese revolutionary
The most powerful moment of the spring arrives when the first seedling, planted days before in an act of unmitigated faith, breaches the surface and reveals its first leaves. This particular spring, I watched that first seed push its way upward on a balmy March day, tucked under glass in a hotbed filled with soil and fresh horse manure. Hotbeds have long nurtured uprisings, and I joined that tradition in some small way by giving this seed and its first leaves the chance to grow.
When a seedling first reaches the light of day, its leaf, coiled inside the seed for weeks, months, or years, finally starts the journey for which it was created. Or so it seems to the above-ground observer – the true beginning occurs days earlier. After some time in contact with the moist soil, during which water streams through the seed coating and swells every cell, the plant inside begins converting its store of food into plant tissue, growing the root that will eventually burst through the seed coat. Before the breakthrough, we call the part that will become the root a radicle, and it certainly is. It breaks free of the safe, protected confines of the seed coat so that its partner can then break upward through the soil. With dramatic action, the seed breaks out of dormancy and reveals its intentions to the world.
In Hawai’i, the story progresses along similar lines. Not only are the people of the taro real, they are fighting to keep tied to their elder brother. For fifteen hundred years, native Hawaiians have bred taro on their islands. They came with taro tops, clones of the plants grown back home, but it was the tiny, infrequent seeds of the plant that allowed them to breed new types. Starting with one, they bred hundreds of varieties, each adapted to a different environment. From flooded bottomlands to dry volcanic slopes, Hawaiians cultivated their staple plant, allowing plant and planter alike to spread through the islands.
The islands’ fertility eventually attracted other peoples, ones not familiar with or interested in the story of the taro, how it nurtured, sustained, and shaped its cultivators. These new arrivals had foreign motivations, manifested in the grand plantations they carved out of the landscape. They brought their own seeds to star-daughter’s domain; rice especially conquered and displaced taro, and its younger brother – native Hawai’ians’ control over their indigenous lands waned into dormancy. Today, there are still many dozens of varieties of taro in Hawai’i, but this is only one fifth of what once grew there. Many disappeared decades ago; a taro leaf blight wiped away many more in the early 1990s. Closely related to the fungus that caused the Irish potato famine 150 years earlier, the blight swept through the Pacific with the speed and fury of a typhoon.
In 2002, the University of Hawai’i acquired patents for three blight-resistant taro varieties they
had bred using traditional methods. Intended to help the Pacific taro industry recover from the devastating disease, which caused Samoa’s taro crop, for instance, to decline 98% in the space of one year, the new varieties could have been a boon to growers. But, in order to grow them, taro farmers had to pay annual royalties to the university, who retained ownership of the plants. In 2003, the University quietly went a step further and began genetically modifying taro strains. When word seeped out, backlash began. Native Hawaiians voiced strong opposition to the research and its implications. Said Walter Ritte, a native Hawaiian and opposition leader, “…we are making it perfectly clear that there is a kapu [ban] placed on all genetic modifications and patenting of our genealogical brother the taro. There should be limits to academic research when it conflicts with indigenous culture. No one can own our traditional knowledge, intellectual property rights or our biodiversity.”
To take a patent out on a living organism is a sticky business to begin with; doing it on a plant that generations of Hawaiians labored to create, then charging them for its use, is even harder to justify. Many in the islands felt wounds of foreign imperialism reopening, the old question of our seeds versus their seeds returning with a new twist. As a product of centuries of refinement and selection, taro seed stock now transmits the values, beliefs, and history of its people. An attempt to own and control it by anyone has far-reaching implications, further than a university looking to recoup research expenses and make a quick profit wanted to see.
Spurred to action by the behavior of the University, some Hawaiians began rising up. Human uprisings operate on a different time scale than those of seeds, however, and require significantly larger hotbeds. The movement took a few years to gain momentum and traction, but the info campaigns, activism, lobbying, and protests culminated in 2006. In May, with heavy symbolism, protestors chained shut the doors of the University’s medical building, demanding an audience with the board of regents meeting inside. Later that year, the University withdrew its taro patents forever, allowing free distribution of the varieties in question. Though they have not fully stopped the University from experimenting with taro through genetic modification, the movement has had much success.
They are not alone. Indigenous and non-indigenous peoples alike are rising up to protest the abuse of the seed, something many still hold sacred, worth protecting. The Anishinaabeg tribes of the White Earth reservation, ricekeepers of northern Minnesota, have fought to protect their staple wild rice from commercial exploitation, patenting, and genetic modification. Groups of peasants and smallholders around the world are refusing to tolerate corporate tyranny and the trampling of their natural rights. Breaking free of the confines that hold them away from the light, whether they be cultural repression or unfettered capitalism, people are rising up and dispersing their knowledge to ensure that their cultures, and their seeds, can continue to do the same.
Continue forward to Part 5 – posted in early August.