Villages on Kauai are getting their last laugh from a bill that would give them back the power to choose the land they live on, and the right to sue developers who overbuild, the latest in a string of attempts by the state to restore its image after decades of neglect.
The measure, which passed on Monday, aims to protect Hawaiian communities from the ravages of development and pollution and to help them recover from decades of environmental degradation.
In the 1990s, as the state struggled to contain rising sea levels and wildfires, it began allowing more than 3,000 small communities on the islands of Maui, Kauai and Palau to be subdivided into smaller units known as islands.
The state now owns most of the land on those islands, but some of the smallest villages are left to develop independently.
The bill passed by the Hawaii Senate last week allows communities to create their own plans for their own development.
The islands are now a state-owned territory, but their inhabitants are still considered to be a minority.
Some of the villages on Kaua’i and Palu, which includes the capital of Honolulu, have been under a state plan since 2000 that allowed them to choose their own way of life.
But in the years since, the state has turned to eminent domain to develop large tracts of land.
Land-owners are now being given the right – and the money – to protect the communities that already exist, and to seek damages from those who build on the land.
In some cases, they have successfully fought off the new legislation, such as in Maui.
In the most recent battle, a group of residents on Kauaii filed a lawsuit against developers and local governments, accusing them of using the state’s vast natural resources for private gain and threatening the health of residents.
In its lawsuit, they argued that some development was necessary for Maui to get its tourism industry going.
They said the land could be used for housing, a hotel or a school or as a farm.
Hawaii’s Republican Governor Scott Brown signed the bill into law in March.
It was the latest attempt by the Republican-led state government to undo decades of policies that helped keep the island state isolated from the rest of the country, which is dominated by China.
“We’ve made it very clear that Hawaii’s future is on its islands and in the waters of the Pacific Ocean,” Brown said at the time.
The bill would not go into effect immediately, but it could help the island states in the coming years.
In the future, Hawaii’s residents would be able to make sure that their land was protected.
“This is an important step forward in helping us restore the Hawaiian islands to their former glory,” Brown told reporters in Mauai.
It is not clear how many villages will be able do so in the near future.
Some of them are already in legal limbo.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Paull, the village leader on Kaui, said he would like to see some of his village built on the shore of the Hawaiian archipelago.
Others have been able to sell their land, but they are not making any plans to do so, he said.
Some villages have been trying to sell the land, while others have decided not to.
In Palu village, for example, there is an open-air bar where people can sit and smoke marijuana, but there are no plans to sell any of the property, said Paull.
Brown has previously said that he is not concerned about the long-term consequences of the legislation.
“I think it will help us to protect our islands,” he said in December.