Sugarcane Burning Alternatives


Growing sugarcane and the island of Maui have been synonymous for well-over a century.  It creates jobs and keeps the valley green.  So why is it such a hot topic with locals?

Updated Maui Sugarcane News!  Sugarcane will no longer be grown as the primary crop by HC&S by later 2016.

sugarcaneIn order for HC&S to be able to compete with mainland continents growing the same crops, they need to keep costs as low as possible (shipping is always a costly problem.)  When harvesting the sugarcane, they do controlled burns to get rid of the leafy parts and make it far easier (and cheaper) to harvest.  In doing this, the island suffers air pollution that causes problems in many areas.  Most people are ok with some black ash raining down, but the compromised air quality is a big problem.  This is what gets people riled up.

There are some groups that propose the end of sugarcane burning.  But I wonder whether they are ready for what would happen.  In our opinion, the sugarcane plants would close and either shut down completely or move to the mainland.  The land would be sold to other possible crops (likely GMO corn for fuel purposes or to experiment with), and/or it would be turned into housing, commercial, and industrial areas.  The island would quickly move in the direction of Oahu’s south shore.  Scary.

This is just our opinion.  The reason we’re writing this is to get some better understanding from you!  Please leave your comments below and help us understand what positive alternatives we have to sugarcane on Maui.  If they can’t burn, does the sugarcane stop?  Is there a way to get government subsidies to help pay for a better way to harvest?  We see some crops being handled with big machines and no burning.  Is it that much more expensive?  Please help us understand.  Mahalo!

sugarcane burning

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  • Before sugar, Maui supported an abundance of dryland forest and diversified agriculture. The Hawaiians were some of the planet’s greatest agriculturalists and supported a population as large as we have today without the assistance of barges and airplanes. Before sugar, breadfruit plantations stretched from Olowalu to Lahaina. Imagine: you could walk in the shade from the edge of the pali to Lahaina! Beneath the ulu trees, Hawaiians planted bananas and sweet potatoes. A single breadfruit can feed a family of four. Sugar replaced those groves. Before sugar, water flowed from the mountain to the sea, drenching taro loi, providing habitat for o’opu (freshwater gobies) and native birds, and carrying nutrients down to the coastal fishponds. Sugar siphoned that water away, leaving the once-productive valleys dry.

    Sugar was an important part of Hawaii’s history. The plantation era was unique and special. Without it, we wouldn’t have obon dances, crack seed, shave ice, pidgin, and so much more. Sugar brought courageous, brilliant people here from distant lands. They became part of this place, lending their sweat and blood to this island, sharing their cultural traditions. Many of these people spent their lives working in the fields, building the phenomenal irrigation ditches, and working on the machinery.

    To discredit the sugar industry may seem like devaluing their efforts. But it is no dishonor to ask for better air to breathe, better soil for growing food to eat, and better access to fresh water. These are reasonable desires.

    Before Maui can move on from sugar, the plantation workers and their descendants need to be acknowledged for what they gave to this island. But we also need to respect those who were here before sugar. The native Hawaiians have been waiting many years for their streams to flow again. Even more desperately, the Hawaiian stream animals have been waiting for their habitat to be restored! HC&S has enjoyed a monopoly on the island’s natural resources for long enough.

    We can learn from the past and employ future technologies to make our land productive again. We don’t have to let the fields turn to houses or GMO crops. It will take a radical change in perspective, but we can do it. We can return the water to the streams and the forests to the Central Valley. We can replace sugar with small, diversified agriculture cooperatives. Imagine forests of wiliwili trees grown for surfboards and canoe amas, sandalwood groves, chicken tractors, dryland taro, tapioca, ulu and sweet potato plantations and much, much more. In the valleys, lush taro loi that drain into coastal fishponds.

    As a community, we can decide how we want Maui to grow. We don’t have to be run over by progress or by big business interests. But we need a little imagination and a lot of courage.

  • I don’t understand. If you love Maui and respect the aina why would you be so opposed to finding a more clean alternative to sugar cane production? Everything we dump on the land and then burn ends up in the soil, air and ultimately the WATER. We should all be protecting the island and ocean. There has got to be a compromise. Maybe we can grow some cane and use non burning harvesting while growing other crops such as hemp, vegetables and fruits. We should be able to produce more food not ship it all in. Maybe instead of subsidizing the government can buy some land and create protected park land? We should be able to come up with something that works for everyone.

  • Unfortunately its all about money. Their profit margin is greater when they can burn entire fields in 1 big pile. Money is more important than human lives.

    • Thanks for the article on Brazil’s sugarcane industry. If they can do it there, really, why can’t we do it here?

  • They green harvest in brazil, having learned that there is greater economic benefit to not burning. HC&S is a stone age dinosaur. The 800 jobs argument is lame, how about the thousands of tourist related jobs that are affected by visitors poor health from smoke inhalation. They can just choose another non burning island. the burns are bad for our economy, plain and simple
    Being racist or ignorant about the problem doesn’t change the fact that we have it. Lighten up everybody.

  • Are the “locals” that are complaining,,actually locals,or just imports from the mainland that expect every body else to conform to their needs?
    I do have a suggestion though.Quit building so many houses.This would help keep Maui green,and help to avoid people from having to deal with a little smoke a couple hours once or twice a year.

  • For a long time I didn’t have a problem with the burning, but then I moved to where the smoke and smell would get to me in my home. I realized how bad it had been for people for so many years. I think many people are missing the fact that it’s not just the cane that is burned, but also anything else that may be in the fields at the time of the burn.

    Not only does the burning cause respiratory issues, migraines, and nausea, but it is also bad for our already fragile climate change situation. The amount of CO2 released when burning is problematic, especially on this scale.

    I agree with the original poster though, that if the fields were to stop being used for sugar production then the central valley would likely end up looking like Oahu. Take the pineapple fields that were sold off by ML&P for example. Although some of the building projects were ditched due to the slump in the economy, housing developments like the one proposed (and which entered into the initial phase of construction) at Hali‘imaile are the future of agricultural land if not put back into agricultural use. The land will likely become residential (we don’t have the water, electricity, or infrastructure to support it), commercial, or industrial zoned land. It could also go the way of many acres of land on Molokai and become Monsanto’s next big research land.

  • Since Maui is a island with daily tradewinds it would seem that the smoke and ash from the burning would dissipate rather quickly and be blow out to sea. I would not think it would stay in the atmosphere long enough to cause any real pollution problems. Just my opinion.

  • I am attached to the smell that cane (the whole process), not just the burning, creates. It automatically says, “home” to me. However, I am just one of too many who suffer from asthma. Hawaii has an inordinate amount of asthmatics who have suffered from infancy. My grandchildren, and their parents suffer also. We are fortunate in that we control it with multiple means, and because we make it a priority and can afford it.

    Several years ago, an experimental crop of hemp was grown on Maui supported by federal funding. The results of this were spectacular. Not only does hemp grow in the overused soil, but it cleans it of highly toxic chemicals used for decades. The hemp itself was not toxic, and was in usable condition for weaving; rope, fabric, and the like.

    Use your imagination, and I am sure you can figure out why such a beneficial crop, with real potential for sustainability and diversity was pushed out. There is so much more money in sitting on prime real estate until it can be sold off.

    I am not in agriculture, nor am I advocating hemp. What I am advocating is a more comprehensive perspective that considers long-term, not just what we get to put in our pocket today. In light of the horrible economics of the last five+ years, we all know that we have to have more options in order to take care of ourselves.

  • If you are worried about the effects of Maui Snow you will be even more worried if the State of Hawaii would let you have the information that proves Maui Snow causes cancer. The powers that be in our legislature have deemed Maui Snow safe by law, so there is nothing we can do about it. It is not even a nuisance! What a joke — on us.

  • I have visited maui almost yearly for 33 years. I remember this same topic about 20 years ago. It’s something like we had with the trees in the Northwest. The loss of revenue was tragic. You will always have the “tree huggers”. Not being a native and there full time the burning of the fields has never bothered me even when they were burning and I was there. I have always just assumed it was a way of life.

  • They should stop burning NOW. It is affecting children and in general everybody that suffers asthma or respiratory problems. It is completely unfair that every week here in N. Kihei we have ashes piling up in our patios, we have to close our windows, etc. And it would be much better for the economy of the island to replace the sugar cane plantation with organic farms to produce vegetables and eggs and all the produce that now we have to bring from miles and miles. If for some reason we don’t have those shipments, we will be in serious trouble. Let’s make a completely sustainable island.

  • You know, I don’t know why this can’t be a win-win for all. And there really is no reason to get nasty and hateful simply because you grew up here and many of us did not. I am part native American, but I don’t say if you don’t like something about the country, get out. After all, we are all children of the same Great Spirit.
    There are many local folks with children who suffer from asthma caused by the cane smoke. I for one have no desire to shut down the sugar industry here, but why couldn’t we press for a higher government subsidy which would be dependent upon conversion to a non-burning harvesting method. This way the sugar industry would stay in business, the valley would not be developed, jobs would remain or perhaps even increase in numbers, and our skies would be clear, Asthma and smoke-related allergies would decrease for everyone, and as far as I can see, there would be no losers.

    • I completely agree with you, unfortunately those in power on Maui do not. I hope you can do better than the canned reply I always got…”We’ve always done it that way and it works, so why change it.”

  • I’m all good with sugarcane burning. No issues. if there are better harvesting alternatives I have no objection, but I’m fine with the status quo.

    • Status quo!! Status quo!! Written by someone who DOES NOT live in Kihei!! Owning a condo in Kihei, I tried for well over a decade and a half to find alternatives to the burning. Everywhere I turned for all those years, all I got was the same reply “That’s the way we’ve always done it!” Or “Then move!” I left Maui rather than live in the ash and filth that was allowed to pollute the air and MY PROPERTY, inconvenience residents and tourists alike, and even make some of them ill, especially children, and there was and is NOBODY looking out for those people!! They’re all looking out for the sugar company. The “Good Ole Boy Network” is alive and well in Maui. I’m sorry to say I’m NOT. I’d move back in a minute if they were to stop the burning, but I’m not packed…

  • ” possible crops (likely GMO corn for fuel purposes or to experiment with), ” REALLY?!?!? GMO. We don’t have a viable, safe way off the planet yet. Are you really going to go down that road?

    • We mentioned that because that’s what we think would happen if we lost cane and went to other agricultural means. BY NO MEANS ARE WE PROMOTING THIS IDEA. We’re just being realistic in what would happen if it went away.

  • Continue to burn the cane. The fire cleanses and leaves ash in the soil. I like sugar in my coffee and glaze on my donuts. Artificial sweeteners are not good for anyone. Burning is a natural phenomenon that is good for the soil. It only happens once a season. If you don’t like it, stay inside with your air-filters turned on.

    • We appreciate your insight. Do you have any resources that can give support to the ash being good for the soil? Unfortunately, some of us work outside or don’t have access to air-filters.

    • It is certainly a waste of energy. MECO burning oil and HC&S burning cane in the fields. We could have more jobs and less CO2 production if the cane was cut green and processed for the A&B power plants.

  • Funny how we think that burning is the only solution because that’s all that’s ever been done, isn’t it ? There are far better, cheaper, more ecological solutions to such a simple problem.

      • Here in Iowa we harvest corn.. A LOT of corn !! The corn stalks are also a problem being left int he field but they aren’t burnt to clear the ground, We also have overgrown fields with various non native wild grasses that compete for resources for the wild alfalfa and other grasses used for animal feed. Maui could till the leafy parts back in the field to be used as a sort of mulch. Also, to rid the fields here of grasses goats are employed to eat what’s left behind. Also, they..ahem…”fertilize” the field with their droppings at no cost to the farmer, thus reducing the need to us commercial fertilizer.

        Biomass is another option. Instead of leaving the leaves on the ground , they, like the sugarcane, could be harvested for biomass energy or converted to biogas as an alternative fuel source.

        • You do not understand the harvesting process. the leaves are burnt off before harvesting,Mechanically removing the leaves,or attempting to process the cane with the leaves left on,would essentially price it right out of the market in Hawaii.

  • I would love to see Maui switch from growing sugar cane to growing industrial hemp. No jobs would have to be lost. Industrial hemp makes lots of products that could be shipped out as well as products used locally such as paper, rope, canvas and textiles.
    It’s an option now that both Colorado and Washington have legalized industrial hemp. Perhaps Hawaii will be next?

    • Please leave more constructive comments. We’re trying to share and learn more about the problems and come up with some solutions. Sharing information about the burning and potential alternatives doesn’t hurt anyone.

    • We should tell the tourist and hotel folks to leave as well. GET OUT and go back where you came from and leave us Bros alone. Us Bros want to make snowmans out of Maui Black Snow and eat it and breath it in so we can get cancer and die sooner rather than later. Maui Snow is full of benzo[alpha]pyrene and other really really bad cancer causing chemicals. Its the best for us who want to die and leave Maui to the bugs.

    • Typical xenophobic localized behavior, after you finish coughing and look up that big word I would like you to ask yourself does anything good come from your attitude? Cane production is NOT a product of well thought out Hawaiian land stewardship, it is purely foreign and was part and parcel of the selling out of the Hawaiian nation. i find it regrettable that most locals protect sugar like its their grandma yet, they have no clue that the reciprocity treaty made sugar more powerful then the Hawaiian monarchy and therefor led to the eventual overthrow of the monarchs.

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