Tractor-churned dust is bedeviling some Maui residents. Photo: MauiTime

Last year at this time, Mauians were cheering the news that Alexander & Baldwin had suddenly shed its former cane field land and 50 percent of its EMI irrigation system in a $267-million sale to a completely unknown, newly-created entity named Mahi Pono.

Oh, there were high hopes for this corporate stranger, the result of a partnership between the Canadian Public Sector Pension Investment Board (PSP) and a California agricultural investment firm, Trinitas. No GMO crops, soil remediation,1,000 jobs, local faces in high-ranking positions. The unicorns and rainbows seemed endless back in December, 2018. 

Twelve months later, many people who have had direct contact with Mahi Pono are singing a different song. Although the lyrics vary slightly from person to person, it goes something like this: “I’m not sure whether the people running this company are complete agricultural idiots, or just evil.”

Why idiots? Well, where to start? Instead of planting an initial round of forage and cover crops, as was envisioned by former general manager Larry Nixon (who lasted all of 16 weeks last winter), nothing was put in the ground while the crop plan was revised and re-revised and re-re-revised and still isn’t finalized. Had those early protective crops been planted, it’s likely that the July 11 fire that burned 9,000 Central Maui acres (5,000 of them on Mahi Pono land) might not have been as destructive. Now, with weedy fields replaced with charred soil, Kihei suffers from a dirt haze when the wind blows.

And speaking of dirt, residents in the Maui Lani and Pukalani areas have been complaining to the state health department about night clouds of dust, which has now become a “thing,” since Maui Pono runs its tractors day and night, tilling and retilling the land into – well – more dust. In an email, Mahi Pono told one complainant that the day/night tilling was necessary because of a “large footprint of citrus acreage we will be planting in 2020.”

The workers driving many of those tractors can’t be blamed for not understanding the ‘aina, since they’re not even from here. Mahi Pono has been importing contract laborers from California on a rotating basis since last spring. In June, when I first heard about these out-of-towners – who were being housed alongside tourists at the Maui Beach Hotel (how can that be cheaper than hiring locally?) – I asked corporate lobbyist/Mahi Pono senior vice-president of operations Shan Tsutsui for comment.

To my astonishment (Maui Pono’s executives and its Oahu-based PR agency mostly ignore MauiTime’s questions), he responded, saying, “Mahi Pono has brought in some farm personnel from the mainland to train our Maui team on the use of specialized equipment, including special tools, irrigation installation, and other items/equipment that are new to our team here.  

“The mainland team is only on Maui temporarily and will leave once training is complete,” Tsutsui continued. “As we continue to reach new milestones in our farming operations, we anticipate having to occasionally bring in temporary teams from the mainland to help with training.”

However, through the summer and fall, when I repeated Tsutsui’s “training” explanation to others, eyebrows arched. No one’s training anybody in specialities, these sources uniformly responded. “They’re just tractor drivers,” said one.

Here’s another eye-opener. In that same June statement, Tsutsui added, “Hawai‘i has highly experienced agricultural workers and other individuals who are looking to enter the trade. As we begin to ramp up operations and create more jobs on Maui, we hope to have as many local residents as possible join our Mahi Pono ‘ohana.”

That differs from what PSP executives were told during at least one meeting – that there was insufficient trained labor on Maui, which is why California workers had to be imported. Plus, from what I hear, the locals who have been hired (other than the A&B sugarcane workers who came with the deal), are not getting a warm welcome from the “Mahi Pono ‘ohana.” Though originally promised full-time positions after several months of employment, they remain contract laborers without benefits, say people with direct knowledge of the situation. The only big Mahi Pono salaries are being drawn by out-of-state executives like agricultural overseer (and serial crop plan reviser) Ceil Howe III, the barely visible Mahi Pono president Ann Chin, and recently hired water lawyer, Tim “The Hammer” O’Laughlin, the company’s new chief operating officer.

If I’m wrong, Mahi Pono should present a list of non-executive workers hired since April who are now receiving full benefits packages with their employment, and I will issue a full retraction.

I’ll grovel further if I’m mistaken in repeating the latest gossip that’s been washing over its barren, apocalyptic-looking landscape: that many of those much-ballyhooed potatoes that Mahi Pono proudly and loudly announced that it was planting a few months back are gone – eaten by feral pigs. At least the ones that weren’t rotted by bad irrigation.

Ah yes, the bad irrigation. That’s another example of corporate cluelessness. Irrigation equipment not suitable to Maui’s land composition was purchased from a California company owned by one of Ceil Howe’s pals, rather than from knowledgeable on-island companies, Mahi Pono-ites tell me, but we will save that story for another time.

In recounting all of these bungling bumblements, the question has been: Does PSP know what’s actually transpiring on Maui? Are the Trinitas managers the actual money-sucking, water hungry predators, with PSP serving as the kindly, naive Canadian banker? Concerned Maui activists have even written to PSP asking this question. Surely, they reason, PSP would change managers if informed about how badly Trinitas was handling its Maui operation?

Well, an answer emerged last week, and it doesn’t absolve PSP. In fact, it more than tips the scales away from the “idiots” designation and toward a more malign intent.

In Australia, which is currently in the midst of one of the worst droughts in the country’s history, PSP just bought 89,000 megaliters of Australian water rights. A megaliter is 1 million liters, so that’s about 23 billion gallons of water. While Australians are being subjected to an unprecedented array of water restrictions, PSP plans to use the water – which it now controls for the next 50 years – to irrigate almond trees. That’s a horribly thirsty crop and one that PSP/Trinitas is also growing with controversially acquired water in drought-stricken California. 

Though we haven’t heard of any plans to plant almond trees on Maui, we most certainly have heard about Mahi Pono’s push for a permanent lease of millions of gallons of East Maui water. Just as PSP purchased the Australian lease from a Singapore firm (for $300-plus million), could water lease acquisition and trading be the end game here, rather than any legitimate farming operation? It would behoove state and county water officials to make sure they have an honest answer to that question before making decisions about Mahi Pono’s place in Maui’s water future.

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