WAIMEA — Everyday, Klayton Kubo, 49, does the same pilgrimage across his village of Waimea, on Kauai, an island in the Hawaiian archipelago. He takes the road along the river, parks his pickup on the roadside and climbs up the hill overlooking the agrochemicals factory.
He stands there and observes. On the other side of the acacias, he can see the tractors and their five-meter-long arms spreading pesticides on the fields. He sees the employees and their hazmat suits, and he waits for the dust. The pollution doesn't come everyday. Sometimes it comes at night, depending on the wind.
Waimea is the cove where British Captain James Cook landed and "discovered" Hawaii in January 1778, according to the commemorative plaque on the statue erected under the bay trees. It's now home to about 2,000 people. Tourists come to visit the red rocks valley people call "the Grand Canyon of the Pacific." They don't suspect that the heavenly setting conceals a silent battle against DuPont-Pioneer, Syngenta and all the GMO Goliaths that have turned Hawaii into a laboratory where they test their modified seeds.
Klayton Kubo has spent all his life in Hawaii, where his grandmother emigrated from Japan. His face is a testimony to the islands' melting-pot and his English is mixed with Pidgin, Hawaii's creole language.
To win his confidence, we had to sit on a bench next to the statue of James Cook and undergo what almost felt like a grilling. After that, he went and got food from "Shrimp Station" and decided to eat it on the sports field next to the school. Seven years ago 10 children from the school had to be taken to hospital after vomiting and showing signs of respiratory disorder.
"I don't speak like their engineers"
Klayton Kubo lives off fishing and off his painting work. But he's also a fighter, a role he assumed more than 10 years ago after Pioneer and Syngenta established laboratories on either side of Waimea, trapping the small town in a vise. Klayton is wary of their maneuvers and of their lawyers.
"They have no respect for us," he says. Klayton recalls how he had just finished painting his house in 2000 when it was covered with a thick red cloud. He asked Pioneer for an explanation but the company simply retorted "trade secret." Since then, he's constantly been hitting the same wall.
"I have no qualifications. I don't speak like their engineers," he says. "But I do know that they're spreading massive quantities of poison." The activist raises his black glasses to show his reddened eyes. "And I don't consume marijuana!" he says.
Together with 150 inhabitants from Waimea, Klayton Kubo filed a collective complaint against Pioneer in 2011. He's kept the original petition in his safe. The villagers learnt thanks to the trial that the firm uses 90 mixtures of pesticides for its experiments on corn crops. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which greenlights the chemical use as long as it's "controlled," Pioneer spread for more than 200 days per year during five years, between 2007 and 2012.
All together, the companies spray a total of 18 tons of pesticides every year in Kauai. "It's more than a farmer sprays in his entire life!," Klayton says.
Wearing out their welcome
Kauai is not the only Hawaiian island being used this way. The isolated Pacific archipelago has become a paradise for multinationals in the agrochemicals industry. The five companies that dominate the global seed market (Monsanto, DuPont-Pioneer, Dow Chemical, Syngenta and BASF) have established themselves there to take advantage of a climate that allows them to harvest three times in the year.
According to Ashley Lukens, the program director for the Center for Food Safety in Honolulu, 178 authorizations to test controlled substances were awarded in 2013 for 1,124 sites. "There are more lab tests in Hawaii than in any other American state," she says, in spite of the islands' ridiculously small surface compared to the vast lands of the Midwest.
Since the 1990s, seed companies have been forcing sugar cane and pineapple plantations out of business. When they arrived, they were welcomed as they saved thousands of farm workers their jobs. But the indulgence was short-lived and turned into uproar in an archipelago where "Aloha Aina," the love of the land, is deeply rooted in each inhabitant.
From Kauai to Molokai and Maui, complaints have multiplied at the initiative of a small group of farmers, organic retailers, educators, "Moms against GMOs," and Europeans who came to this natural paradise to establish their yoga and meditation centers.
In November 2014, voters in Maui, a tourism hotspot and Monsanto stronghold, voted in favor of imposing a moratorium on GMO testing and growing until a comprehensive study proves they're not harmful. A first in the U.S., where GMOs are both legal and ubiquitous, representing 90% of corn and soybeans production.
The day after the vote, Dow Chemical filed a complaint against the moratorium, together with Monsanto (whose lawyer Ken Robbins canceled our appointment in Honolulu). Until the federal judge rules on the matter, the moratorium is suspended. "It's a shame because it was the result of a democratic process," says Vincent Mina, the president of association Farmers Union United.
Blocked at every turn
In Kauai, people are not asking for GMOs to be banned. They just want "the right to know" what's being spread on their land. Kauai, also known as the "Garden Isle," is the most rural of the archipelago, and the cradle of Hawaii's demand of "food sovereignty" (85% of fruits and vegetables are imported) and of the right to teach again in Hawaiian to prevent the native language from disappearing.
Pollution only adds up to the feeling that Hawaiians are being dispossessed of their land. In the traditional culture, the elements have "their own personality," explains Molly Ka'imi Summers, professor of Hawaiian and Ethnobotany at the University of Hawaii. "The language has tens of different words for each element." The words for rain, for example, take up a whole page in an English-Hawaiian dictionary.
Water flows on Kauai. It streams down Mount Waialeale, the wettest spot on earth with an average of 12.2 meters of rainfall every year. Traditionally, each community is responsible for preserving their irrigation ponds, from the top of the mountain all the way to the ocean. "It was a very personal relationship. Nobody would have wanted to make improper use of the water," recounts Malia Chun, who teaches Hawaiian culture at the University.
Today however, "people are scared that the water is polluted. We don't know what the companies are spreading," Elan Goldbart, 23, an agronomist on an organic farm.
The wind used to be a blessing in Hawaii. It also has its own full-page in Molly Summers' dictionary. But in Waimea, the trades have become an enemy that covers everything in red dust. Malia Chun didn't suspect a thing until her two daughters started suffering from respiratory disorder. Syngenta was spreading pesticides at the end of her garden but she hadn't paid attention to it. She now has asthma. The children suffer from headaches, nosebleeds and also asthma.
In late October 2013, the Kauai municipality passed a ruling ordering the four multinationals established there to keep a "buffer zone" near schools and hospitals. The city also called on the companies to reveal which pesticides are being tested and when, "so that we have time to close our windows," as Malia Chun puts it. But once again, Pioneer, Syngenta and Dow took the case to the court of appeals.
Anti-GMOs activists believe there's little hope the federal justice system will validate a local decision that goes in the face of national legislation —especially since companies have a cast-iron defense: they don't plant or spread anything that isn't approved and authorized by the Environmental Protection Agency or the Department of Agriculture.
Struggling to be heard
On April 28, Malia Chun went as far as Basel, Switzerland, to air her community's grievances in a shareholders' general assembly at the headquarters of Syngenta, the world's biggest producer of herbicide, insecticide and fungicide.
Gary Hooser, a Kauai town council member, also spoke at the event, asking the company to stop using in Hawaii half-a-dozen pesticides that are forbidden in Switzerland, such as atrazine, a synthetic herbicide suspected of provoking cancer which was found in the drinking water of Waimea's school in 2011.
"Treat us with the same dignity you show towards Swiss citizens. Grant us the same protection. Don't pour on my community chemicals that you can't spread on yours," he pleaded. The Hawaiian delegation put forward a petition signed by 7,500 people from Kauai, more than one for every 10 inhabitants. Again, it was quite easy for the company to just reply that these pesticides were allowed for agricultural research in the U.S.
Some in Hawaii have rebranded the Waimea Valley "Poison Valley." Wendell and Wanda Kabutan fled to Honolulu in search for a sophisticated hospital. A retired teacher, Wanda, 64, hopes she's defeated cancer. Her husband, a former ground agent for Hawaiian Airlines, suffers from a painful cough.
As is often the case in this sort of situation, nobody could prove any irrefutable scientific correlation between the inhabitants health issues (37 cancers in a neighborhood of 800 inhabitants) and the pesticides. As a result, the court ruled that only the houses' depreciation could be taken into account in the plea of Waimea's inhabitants and not the alleged contamination by chemicals. On May 9, the judge granted the first damages, $500,000 per household for 15 of the affected inhabitants.
Pioneer was found guilty of breaching agricultural testing regulations. It's a first, but the Kabutans have lost faith. They've see the grass around their house go brown. They've seen dead birds fall on their car, colleagues passing away too early. They're tired of hearing promises that there won't be anymore spreading at night, or when the wind is too strong. Or that the test will only take place inside greenhouses.
After our interview, they walk away in small, slow steps, struggling with the weight of a fight that's too big for them alone to carry. On the continent, their voices may have been heard earlier. But Hawaii is so far away.