Puerto Rico and Hawaii have at all times felt to me like reverse sides of the imperial coin. My fellow Boricuas who assist statehood usually level to the Aloha State as a logo of our future: an instance of profitable annexation, full citizenship, political illustration and the American promise of prosperity. Others think about it a cautionary story of how assimilation can result in displacement, cultural erasure and an economic system centered on escapist fantasy.
As I’ve watched occasions unfold after the latest fires in Maui, these strains have blurred, revealing shared histories and mutual vulnerabilities and bringing a profound sense of déjà vu. I’m haunted by the information of important infrastructure crumbling when most wanted and of residents left to fend for themselves within the absence of presidency help. Most of all, I shudder with recognition on the palpable concern that restoration will lead solely to displacement and dispossession.
When you kind “what induced the fires in Maui” into your search bar (as I did), you may be left with no clear reply. Articles forged blame on outdated energy strains, nonnative grasses, a faltering water system and compounding climate and climate-driven components.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Local weather Change has acknowledged that the local weather disaster is rooted within the exploitation and degradation of the surroundings, folks and cultures, which have been foundational ideas of colonialism. Settlers prioritized fast useful resource beneficial properties over long-term ecological well being, shunning Indigenous land administration practices as outdated obstacles to progress.
To grasp these fires, you need to rewind to the nineteenth century, when Christian missionaries reworked an space that was largely wetlands into large-scale sugar plantations that required the digging of tunnels and the constructing of reservoirs to divert water to mills and away from sustainable agriculture. Dominated by American buyers, the sugar and pineapple industries led to deforestation and left native Hawaiians with inadequate water for his or her crops.
As soon as the sugar increase ended, the land was additional exploited for transplants and vacationers. Whereas Upcountry residents in Maui face water shortages, rationing and fines in the event that they fail to preserve water, luxurious resorts throughout the island are allowed to maintain their faucets operating. The surge of tourism has induced housing prices to skyrocket and has given rise to a neighborhood economic system centered on the wants of these simply passing by means of. These imperial legacies mixed to create a tinderbox, ready to ignite.
Simply as a home that hasn’t been cared for correctly is extra susceptible to dangerous climate, lands exploited and mismanaged by colonialism at the moment are at higher threat of catastrophe. Residents in Puerto Rico and Maui are extra susceptible not simply to pure disasters but in addition to predatory land grabs within the wake of catastrophes.
President Biden has pledged that the rebuilding course of in West Maui will likely be guided by cultural sensitivity, stating, “We’re going to get it completed for you however get it completed the best way you need it completed.” However how can rebuilding honor a historic and cultural legacy that has been systematically threatened by U.S. annexation?
As I watched Mr. Biden’s statements from my mom’s dwelling in Puerto Rico, I used to be grateful that he didn’t throw paper towels at locals or ask whether or not he may merely dump colonial properties — as Donald Trump did in Puerto Rico in 2018. Nevertheless, actual change calls for extra than simply the appropriate optics and platitudes. It additionally requires a imaginative and prescient of reconstruction that addresses historic restore.
Hawaii residents, like Puerto Ricans, who confronted disasters earlier than them, aren’t asking to be saved. They ask solely to be allowed to assist themselves within the face of failing emergency providers and federal help. However the entrenched vulnerabilities produced by colonialism aren’t so simply overcome. For instance, some residents have been begging vacationers to keep away because the group recovers. However others have mentioned that as a lot as they want the time to mourn, they merely can’t afford it — particularly when all they’ve acquired from the federal government is $700. That is what occurs when your economic system hinges on the pleasure of others.
Maui residents who have been already being pushed out by unaffordable housing costs and a scarcity of profession alternatives past hospitality will now in all probability really feel the identical push emigrate that Puerto Ricans did after Hurricane Maria. It would solely worsen if weeks of absent federal help flip into months of bureaucratic labyrinths and infinite purple tape, as has occurred so usually. Right here once more I take into consideration how after Hurricane Maria solely 40 p.c of FEMA candidates acquired any help in any respect and a bit over 1 p.c acquired the utmost payout.
The problem of repairing broken properties with out ample assist — in addition to persistent energy outages, deteriorating bridges and a failing well being system — has made it more and more troublesome for Puerto Ricans to remain put. This has mixed with the inflow of digital nomads and federal tax-evading millionaires, together with a rising Airbnb market that has priced many individuals out of their very own communities.
The State of Hawaii has mentioned it is going to defend locals from land speculators. But when the paperwork of emergency administration stalls out or fails, individuals who have momentary resort vouchers or are overstaying their welcome on their cousins’ couches will likely be left with few choices apart from to promote.
Opportunistic profiteering usually follows an emergency, however it’s essential to grasp that these fast grabs of assets and energy usually rely upon and exacerbate present fault strains of imperial extraction.
The U.S. authorities has already acknowledged and formally apologized for its unlawful overthrow of the Hawaiian authorities, however it has didn’t restore the harms induced or the imperial legacies that endure. As for Puerto Rico, the U.S. authorities has by no means acknowledged wrongdoing, even because it continues to disclaim residents full citizenship or sovereignty.
Forging a sustainable postdisaster future for each Puerto Rico and Hawaii requires greater than momentary shelters and fast fixes. It calls for a reckoning with the entrenched techniques of inequality that set the stage for these tragedies to start with. A simply restoration can’t be about bouncing again to a earlier state of vulnerability, nor can or not it’s about constructing again higher with out asking: Higher for whom?