Return to Homepage

Search IPCB:            

ULTRA Search™
for more
specific results

Media Release (Honolulu, February 5, 2005)

University of Hawaii Research on Genetically Engineered Taro Breaches Native Hawaiian Rights

A group of visiting Indigenous peoples participating in a state-wide speaking tour on genetic engineering have called into question the decision by the University of Hawaii to undertake genetic experimentation on the kalo (taro), a plant with immense cultural and spiritual significance to the Native Hawaiian people. The University’s College of Tropical Agriculture is currently engaged in a number of genetic modification experiments that change the genetic structure of the kalo.

Speaking at a number of forums across the Hawaiian Islands, Debra Harry, director of the Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism, explains that there are well-established international and human rights protocols that should govern research that impacts Indigenous peoples and their resources. “The University has overlooked one of the most fundamental principles of conducting research on the kalo, and that is the right of the Native Hawaiian people, as a collective, to give their free and full prior informed consent before this research was undertaken” she says. Making reference to the Convention on Biological Diversity and other international agreements Ms. Harry was clear that the research being undertaken breaches international standards.

`A Ke A`a: Strengthening the Root, was a week long speaking tour which concluded this week organized by GMO-Free Hawaii and KAHEA: The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance, featuring Indigenous voices with a particular goal of raising greater awareness on GE issues and its impacts to Hawaiian people and culture. Several Hawaiian community activists including Ku Kahakalau, Jimmy Medeiros, Kia Fronda, Ed Wendt, Mahealani Silva, and Walter Ritte participated in panels within their respective communities. Ritte, a long-time Hawaiian activist from Moloka`i, said “to put foreign genes into our older brother, Haloa, the kalo, is a sacrilege.”

Le’a Kanehe, a Native Hawaiian attorney now working with the Nevada-based Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism, says that concerns about the kalo were raised at all twelve of the venues through out Hawaii. “At all of those forums, we heard from Kanaka Maoli who were unaware that the UH was doing such research. Among the communities that we visited and talked to about the research on kalo, a number made reference to the depth of feeling for the kalo, which is a sacred plant and regarded as an ancestor in our genealogy. One kalo farmer said that by genetically engineering the kalo, they were going one plant too far.”

A coalition of Hawaii coffee growers associations successfully lobbied UH and the State to discontinue GE coffee based on import bans of GE foods in foreign markets, such as Japan and Europe. Kalo farmers hope to follow suit for a more fundamental reason – an ancestral relationship and corresponding responsibility to care for the kalo.

“It was quite a surprised to hear that a University is undertaking research on a native species without consulting the Native Hawaiians. What is the University’s process for engaging with Hawaiian communities? Even the kalo farmers did not know this research was happening. They would never have got away with this in New Zealand,” said Dr. Paul Reynolds, a Maori anti-GE activist, academic, and speaker on the tour. New Zealand law requires the government to minimally consult with Maori whenever their natural resources are impacted.

Dr. Cherryl Waerea-i-te-rangi Smith, also Maori of New Zealand, says that “Hawaii’s agricultural industry is being put at risk by the genetic engineering industry. There have been enough genetic accidents around the world to know that other life forms do not escape contamination. The Indigenous peoples of Chiapas, Mexico have already suffered the contamination of their native species of corn and once that happens, it cannot be reversed.” Until a year ago, New Zealand had a ban on any field releases of GMO crops as a result of broad opposition among Maori and non-Maori. While the ban has lifted, no permits have been issued in the country.

In addition to kalo, UH has genetically modified corn, papaya, banana, tobacco, coffee, sugarcane and pineapple. As of 2003, Hawaii had 1418 field trials of GMOs at 4566 field test sites. The leading GM producing corporations in the U.S. and world, including Monsanto, Dow, Pioneer Hi-Bred, Prodigene, and Syngenta are doing business in Hawaii. The State also ranks second in the U.S. for biopharmaceutical field trials, crops genetically modified to produce pharmaceutical products such as vaccines, hormones, and contraceptives. The State Department of Agriculture and USDA’s failure to disclose the location of such field trials and sources of donor genes, including from humans, has been the subject of a lawsuit by Earthjustice. Based on this profile, Kanehe has called Hawaii a “GE sacrifice zone for the U.S.”

Outraged by the information disseminated during the tour, Native Hawaiian organizations are calling for a stop to any further genetic modification of Hawaiian varieties of kalo, as well as the development of stronger University research policies and protocols that recognize and protect Native Hawaiian peoples’ collective rights. Kanehe informed the state-wide audiences that UH has already been called to task on bioprospecting contracts with private corporations hunting for commercially valuable genetic material from Hawaii’s native biodiversity, which has led to legislation now pending in the state legislature (House Bill 247 & Senate Bill 484). She also referred to a 2003 resolution of the Hawaiian Civic Clubs that successfully led to an administrative halt of a proposed Hawaiian genome project that would have collected blood samples from Native Hawaiians and sought to patent the genome of the Hawaiian people. “For several years now, Kanaka Maoli have been demanding accountability from the University, including a process within the institution to review both human and non-human subject research that will have impacts on Kanaka Maoli,” says Kanehe.

For more information, contact Cha Smith (KAHEA) – 808-277-5362

Indigenous tour speakers can be contacted by email at the links below:

Le`a Kanehe, Esq. – email
Debra Harry – email
Dr. Cherryl Smith – email
Dr. Paul Reynolds - email