July 24, 2024

In 1895, Queen Liliʻuokalani spent nearly eight months in prison in an upstairs bedroom in Iolani Palace in Honolulu. She was placed there by American businessmen, backed by the US military who overthrew the Hawaiian Kingdom, an internationally recognized sovereign nation.

She spent her days in detention translating the creation story of the Hawaiian people line by line into English.

She would never be allowed to rule over her people again. The US annexed Hawaiʻi over the protests of the natives, and the islands became a territory and then a state. But now the work of the captive queen is resurfacing in the international debate over whether to mine the seabed for minerals that could accelerate the energy transition away from fossil fuels.

A black and white photo of a woman in a royal gown and sash
Queen Liliuokalani, the last royal leader of Hawaiʻi, in an 1887 photo.
Bettmann/Getty Images

Solomon Kahoʻohalahala, a Native Hawaiian activist from the island of Lānaʻi, wrote the Queen’s translation, known as the Kumulipoand to bring it to the attention of state and international lawmakers to make the case that the ocean is sacred to Hawaiians and deep-sea mining would irreparably harm it.

On Friday he flies to Kingston, Jamaica, to the headquarters of the International Maritime Authority, a United Nations agency that oversees international waters. He is hoping to convince the agency to form a committee where indigenous people like him can weigh the cost of mining proposals to their cultural heritage.

“The sea knows no boundaries. The fish and the animals know no boundaries,” Kahoʻohalahala said. “We are the people who existed and we lived here, so we have to protect all of it.”

Locally, his message resonates: On Monday, Hawai’i Governor Josh Green signed it into law. a ban on seabed mining in the state’s surrounding waters, making Hawai’i the fourth state to do so after Oregon, Washington and California. The ban prevents any permits from being issued for the extraction of minerals within state waters. The new law comes on the heels of a letter a dozen members of Congress sent to President Joe Biden last month asking him to moratorium on deep sea mineral extraction.

The mining of minerals such as cobalt, which can be used to make batteries for electric vehicles, has the potential to start a multi-billion-dollar industry that could accelerate the green transition away from dependence on oil and gas. But opponents worry about the potential for irreparable damage to marine animals that have spent millions of years untouched.

For Kahoʻohalahala, the ban in his home archipelago is significant, as are efforts to exert pressure on the Biden administration. But the US does not have a seat on the International Maritime Authority because it has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. And this is where the most important negotiations take place that could determine whether permits are granted to allow corporations to mine the high seas.

The agency has not yet approved its agenda for this month’s meeting, but the stakes are high.

Member states are expected to vote on a new secretary-general, which includes two candidates with very different views on the future of mining. The New York Times reports last week that the election was already mired in scandal amid allegations of bribery for votes and similar corruption.

There is also growing interest in deep sea mining from places like American Samoa. It is possible that the agency could receive proposals this summer from companies and governments seeking approval for their mining plans.

This is why Kahoʻohalahala feels it is urgent to ensure that indigenous peoples have a voice in any decision-making. He wants the International Maritime Authority Council to establish a Committee on Intangible Underwater Cultural Heritage that can advise the Council on how mining proposals could affect indigenous peoples’ cultural connection to the sea.

Solomon Kahoʻohalahala, a Native Hawaiian activist, speaks out against deep sea mining during a press conference in Honolulu in December 2023.
Solomon Kahoʻohalahala, a Native Hawaiian activist, speaks out against deep sea mining during a press conference in Honolulu in December 2023.
Anita Hofschneider / Grist

He thinks about how indigenous peoples were not involved in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and how it led to the conclusion that the high seas belong to all mankind.

“The colonial perspective and that of deep sea mining is that the deep sea is an area of ​​great emptiness and there is nothing there. They determined that it really didn’t belong to anyone,” he said. “No one ever thought that the indigenous people of Oceania had a connection and relationship with what they call the open sea.”

Raised in a family of farmers and fishermen on the Hawaiian island of Lānaʻi, Kahoʻohalahala worked for years in local and state advocacy for indigenous rights and conservation before beginning to participate in international conservation and biodiversity meetings in the past decade.

Two and a half years ago, he heard about the International Seabed Mining Authority. He attended an agency meeting in Kingston as an observer representing Greenpeace. There he realized that the agency was considering allowing seabed mining in the Clarion-Clipperton zone, about 500 miles south of Hawaiʻi.

Since then, he has become Hawaiʻi’s leading activist against seabed mining.

“My commitment is to make sure we do what is responsible for us to do as kupuna looking forward to the next few generations, 100 years from now,” he said, using the Hawaiian word for elders. “I hope that our great mo’opuna (grandchildren) will say our tutu’s (grandparents) were involved in taking care of this space, and that’s why we can still be here 100 years from now.”

Kahoʻohalahala often thinks of Queen Liliʻuokalani. He thought of her Monday as he stood in the Hawaii governor’s office, a stone’s throw from the palace where she was held captive.

“(I’m) grateful that our queen, in her darkest hours at Iolani Palace, took the time to translate this into English, to help us be advocates of our own cultural connection, which connects us all to all ecosystems, ” said Kahoʻohalahala. .

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