It’s the end of green fields of sugar cane on Maui with Alexander & Baldwin announcing today that it is “transitioning out of farming sugar” at its Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. plantation on Maui to move toward diversified agriculture. The company will lay off nearly all of its 675 employees.
The company said it will shift to a “diversified agricultural model” for its 36,000-acre plantation on Maui. Sugar operations will begin to be phased out by the end of 2016. The HC&S plantation is Hawaii’s last large-scale sugar operation. The other Hawaii islands had all previously abandoned sugar production.
The move means the controversial practice of sugar cane burning will finally end. HC&S has been under increasing scrutiny in recent years because of the air pollution caused by cane burning, its use of pesticides and the diversion of streams in East Maui.
A Maui cane burning study released in October found that the burning of more than 100 acres is linked to acute respiratory illness. HC&S generally burns about 400 acres of sugar cane weekly from March to November. A lawsuit to stop HC&S burning fields included information that pesticide overspray has been a serious problem with five homes in Paia being contaminated with a mixture of Dicamba, Diruron, 2,4-D, Pendimethanlin, Ametryn, and Hexazinone.
Under the new model, plantation land will be divided up in smaller farms for different uses. These could be energy crops, food crops, support for the local cattle industry, and the development of an agriculture park.
“A&B’s roots literally began with the planting of sugar cane on 570 acres in Makawao, Maui, 145 years ago,” said Stanley M. Kuriyama, A&B executive chairman.
“The sugar industry in Hawaii first began on Maui so it is only right that it ends here as well,” said Maui’s Mayor Alan Arakawa.
Sugar was king in Hawaii. For decades, Hawaii’s economy was dominated by a handful of companies that controlled the sugar industry and associated businesses. Commonly referred to as the Big Five, most were founded by missionaries, or the sons of missionaries, and they became extremely powerful. Sugar planters were among the American businessmen who overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893 with the backing of the U.S. military.
In the late 19th century many plantation workers began to feel that their conditions were comparable to the conditions of slavery. The plantation management set up rules controlling employees’ lives even after working hours. They were not permitted to leave the plantation in the evenings, and there were rules as to when they had to be in bed -usually by 8:30 in the evening – and no talking was allowed after lights out.
Waves of immigrants from a number of nations were brought in to work the plantations. But workers were paid unequal wages based on ethnic background. Japanese workers got $18 a month for 26 days of work, while the Portuguese and Puerto Ricans received $22.50 for the same work. In 1909 the Japanese went on strike. Newspapers denounced the strikers as “agitators and thugs.” An article in the Honolulu Advertiser referred to the Japanese as, “unskilled’ unthinking fellows, mere human implements.” Police rounded up strikers in Waipahu, who were staying with friends and forced them at gunpoint to return to work.
A Commissioner of Labor Statistics noted, “Plantations view laborers primarily as instrument of production. Their business interests require cheap, not too intelligent, docile, unmarried men.”
A Maui-born resident commented: “My mother’s family lived in a plantation camp, next to a irrigation ditch. During the first half of the 20th century, up until 40 years ago, dangerous, cancer causing chemicals such as DDT were commonly used on sugar plantations. These chemicals inevitability leach into the soil and surface as well as ground water. My mom told me stories of how they all played in the irrigation ditches. 60 years later, my mom and all of her siblings developed some sort of cancer; it was actually 4 difference kinds of cancer among these siblings. The common denominator was plantation life and the environment they were raised. The sugar plantations were loosely molded like the slavery plantations of the American South hence the name plantation was also used for these sugar cane “farms”. I personally do not feel one single sense of sadness about the ceasing of HC&S’s sugar operations.”