It's only a tiny corner of a tiny island lost in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, but the battle for the future of the lands that stretch six miles around the Kahuku Point coastline on O'ahu that is chronicled in Forever Country is iconic. In a world where the population is expected to reach 10 billion in 35 years, sea level rise is accelerating, water and food resources are depleting and pressure for jobs and housing keeps growing, how do you balance the competing demands?
Filmmakers Mike Hinchey and Anthony Aalto are in the midst of shooting a documentary that takes us into the heart of this small community. We follow the daily life of an aging hotel worker who has lived and worked in the area for decades. We see what sacrifices she has to make to live in the country, we hear her hopes and aspirations. At the other end of the spectrum we follow a student from nearby Brigham Young University who is torn by what is happening around him and we learn from him too about his hopes and aspirations.
We spend time with those who want to halt all development in an effort to preserve an unspoiled landscape and way of life that is a throwback to a slower, less complicated era. But we also get to meet those who argue that The Country is not a precious artifact to be put on display and admired like a museum piece, but a living breathing community which has to grow and urgently needs new jobs and housing.
The debate challenges powerful forces and long-held beliefs.
For more than a generation planners on O'ahu have accepted a basic principle: all major new development on the island should be focused in the existing urban corridor on the leeward coast. That principle was enshrined in O'ahu's Master Plan and reinforced by an Urban Growth Boundary that was supposed to act like the Great Wall of China: all the major new infrastructure, roads and industry were supposed to be located behind the wall, down near the city of Honolulu. The purpose was to protect the hinterland beyond the Boundary from development; to preserve the rural character of the fabled North Shore and Windward Side where life in some ways still harks back to the days before O'ahu became a tourist Mecca.
Today that planning concept is being challenged.
On the North Shore, the Turtle Bay Resort plans to build two new hotels and 100 vacation homes next to the James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge. Down the road, Continental Pacific llc, (which describes its core business as "purchasing large land tracts, ranging from thousands of acres to hundreds of thousands of acres, and reselling those tracts as smaller parcels to value investors") is evicting former plantation workers from houses they have lived in for decades in order to sell them as vacation homes. And in La'ie, HRI, the real estate arm of the Church of Latter Day Saints (popularly known as the Mormons), is proposing to build a shopping mall and a new town of up to 1000 homes on Gunstock Ranch where the majestic Malaekahana valley spills into the ocean.
How could this be? Some opponents believe that rich and powerful interests are buying influence with political leaders. The filmmakers bring the audience with them as they challenge both the developers and the politicians to explain their rationale.
The fight is an emotional one that has divided families, communities and even a church.
Native Hawaiian families that have lived in the area for generations are riven. Some point out that their houses are aging rapidly, are over-occupied by several generations and that if new places to live and decent jobs aren't soon made available their children will leave for the mainland, never to return. So adamantly do they believe in the need for new housing that, ironically, there have even been instances of family members being evicted by their relatives for opposing the plans for development.
On the other hand there are Native Hawaiians who argue that the tiny two-lane road that services the area cannot handle more traffic, that development will lead to an influx of outsiders, that eventually the road will be widened or worse a new freeway will be built and the Kawela-Kahuku-La'ie corridor will quickly come to resemble the urbanized leeward coast, destroying their way of life for ever.
Members of the Mormon Church are also stuck on both sides of the debate and the producers have invited church leaders to share their vision and their thinking.
Is there any compromise available? Or are the two sides condemned to a never-ending fight to define what it is that will keep the area Forever Country?