Learning from indigenous agriculture

Growing populations and climate change place new demands on agriculture. Intensive farming in ancient Hawai‘i demonstrates efficient and resilient land allocation.

The islands of Polynesia represent perhaps the greatest socio-environmental experiment in human history. A single cultural group, with the same toolbox of animals and crops, settled hundreds of islands that differed in environmental opportunities and constraints. Each island society developed unique resource-management strategies and social adaptations as it approached its limits to growth, resulting in various levels of success and failure. One highly successful society, one that developed into an independent monarchy that ultimately forged alliances as equals with the world powers, is Hawai‘i. In this issue of Nature Sustainability, Kurashima and colleagues demonstrate the intelligent design of traditional Hawaiian agricultural systems, their productive capacity and their continued resilience under climate change scenarios.


A segment of the vast Leeward Kohala Field System, one of the smallest and best studied of the intensively cultivated rain-fed agricultural zones. Once highly productive and home to some of the most fertile soils in Hawai‘i, this region is now used for relatively low-productivity cattle grazing.

Hawai‘i, with its highly diverse climates and soils and its unique social history, has been considered an ideal model system for studying the co-evolution between humans and their environment1. Of particular interest has been Hawaiian agriculture, which employed a variety of intensive agricultural practices in a broad range of tropical environments, including dense rain-fed multi-cropped systems, multi-tiered agroforestry, flooded wetland infrastructure and various hybrid systems2,3,4. The distribution of agricultural strategies in Hawai‘i is astonishingly organized and can be understood largely in terms of landscape characteristics, such as topography and soil fertility, that change predictably as islands age1,5,6. Ancient cultivators utilized virtually every arable landscape within the confines of their environment1,2,5. They built networks of terraced infrastructure wherever water could be gravitationally fed, established intensive cropping wherever rainfall and soil fertility allowed, and developed agroforests and other strategies in less-fertile areas.

An interdisciplinary literature has focused on the landscape-level distribution of these agricultural systems46 and on how differences in each system’s inputs and outputs co-evolved with divergent socio-political structure and norms1,6. Socio-economic factors such as land tenure, the dominant religious deities, resource economies and laws were influenced, at least in part, by the productive capacity of the land2,6.

While the co-evolution of agricultural development and socio-political structure has been a major focus, it tends to overshadow how incredible these agricultural systems were in their own right. While most tropical areas globally still experienced slash-and-burn agriculture, Hawaiians developed highly productive systems that were marvelled upon by the first European explorers to witness them2. Each island, with the exception of O‘ahu, supported a higher population prior to this arrival than exists today, which was sustained solely by local resources. In contrast, the Hawaiian islands today rely heavily on imports, shipping in approximately 85–90% of their food7. To sustain resources and maximize productivity, ancient Hawaiians not only adapted their farming methods to efficiently utilize natural processes but also developed place-specific practices to enhance nutrient and hydrologic flows. These systems were maintained while supporting, and in some cases enhancing, ecosystem services and wildlife habitat.

To further explore these traditional systems and their contemporary relevance, Kurashima, Fortini and Ticktin build upon previous modelling of Hawaiian cultivation5,8. Their updated model provides insight into traditional productivity and carrying capacity, suggesting historic Hawai‘i produced over 1 million tonnes of food annually, capable of supporting some 1.2 million people — 85% of the contemporary population. However, the real value of this work is the exploration of the overlap of the traditional areas of cultivation with contemporary zoning and the resilience of their productivity under climate change scenarios. This exercise highlights key elements that could inform contemporary planning for food security and resilience under a changing climate.

Kurashima and colleagues demonstrate that urban encroachment has reduced traditional agroecosystems by ~13%, illustrating how some of the most-productive lands, essential to the self-sustenance of Hawai‘i, are being converted. A further ~20% of such traditional productive systems are now zoned as conservation, highlighting the different perspectives of the modern culture that separates environmental health from human productivity. Finally, the authors depict the most resilient areas of traditional cultivation under climate change, which vary from no change to a decrease of ~19% in the driest scenario. Recognizing and planning for such shifts in cultivable area is essential for intelligent planning for our future. As Hawai‘i sets its own ambitious goal of doubling local food production, one would hope that scholarship such as this has a voice at the table.

To me, this research highlights the relevance of traditional knowledge and practices in our contemporary societies and our future challenges in a way that not many researchers are able to convey. The hard numbers of productivity and impact are a strong compliment to the emerging work that largely focuses on the ecosystem services of traditional systems such as biodiversity, carbon sequestration and sustainability. The opportunity to rehabilitate the land, support Native Hawaiian connection to land and place, and enhance local food production shows promise. I hope that future research seeks to pull together more detailed pictures, incorporating the highly developed, place-specific practices of indigenous agriculture with broader, landscape-level perspectives to inform both agricultural policy and practice.

As the planet struggles to come to terms with resource and space limitation, it is worthwhile to consider the pathways of island cultures that, in many cases, have lived within the confines of resource limitation for hundreds and sometimes thousands of years. Successful adaptation in the past and into the future requires that we not fall victim to value rigidity, openly considering options that include those previously displaced9. The work of Kurashima and colleagues is an important step to contextualizing the lessons of the past into relevant terms for the future.


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Correspondence to Noa Kekuewa Lincoln.

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Lincoln, N.K. Learning from indigenous agriculture. Nat Sustain 2, 167–168 (2019).

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