Opinion | A Legacy of Colonialism Set the Stage for the Maui Wildfires

Puerto Rico and Hawaii have always felt to me like reverse sides of the imperial coin. My fellow Boricuas who support statehood often point to the Aloha State as a symbol of our future: an example of successful annexation, full citizenship, political representation and the American promise of prosperity. Others consider it a cautionary tale of how assimilation can lead to displacement, cultural erasure and an economy centered on escapist fantasy.

As I’ve watched events unfold after the recent fires in Maui, these lines have blurred, revealing shared histories and mutual vulnerabilities and bringing a profound sense of déjà vu. I’m haunted by the news of essential infrastructure crumbling when most needed and of residents left to fend for themselves in the absence of government aid. Most of all, I shudder with recognition at the palpable fear that recovery will lead only to displacement and dispossession.

If you type “what caused the fires in Maui” into your search bar (as I did), you will be left with no clear answer. Articles cast blame on outdated power lines, nonnative grasses, a faltering water system and compounding weather and climate-driven factors.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has acknowledged that the climate crisis is rooted in the exploitation and degradation of the environment, people and cultures, which were foundational principles of colonialism. Settlers prioritized immediate resource gains over long-term ecological health, shunning Indigenous land management practices as outdated barriers to progress.

To understand these fires, you have to rewind to the 19th century, when Christian missionaries transformed an area that was mostly wetlands into large-scale sugar plantations that required the digging of tunnels and the building of reservoirs to divert water to mills and away from sustainable agriculture. Dominated by American investors, the sugar and pineapple industries led to deforestation and left native Hawaiians with insufficient water for their crops.

Once the sugar boom ended, the land was further exploited for transplants and tourists. While Upcountry residents in Maui face water shortages, rationing and fines if they fail to conserve water, luxury resorts across the island are allowed to keep their taps running. The surge of tourism has caused housing costs to skyrocket and has given rise to a local economy focused on the needs of those just passing through. These imperial legacies combined to create a tinderbox, waiting to ignite.

Just as a house that hasn’t been cared for properly is more vulnerable to bad weather, lands exploited and mismanaged by colonialism are now at greater risk of disaster. Residents in Puerto Rico and Maui are more vulnerable not just to natural disasters but also to predatory land grabs in the wake of catastrophes.

President Biden has pledged that the rebuilding process in West Maui will be guided by cultural sensitivity, stating, “We’re going to get it done for you but get it done the way you want it done.” But how can rebuilding honor a historical and cultural legacy that has been systematically threatened by U.S. annexation?

As I watched Mr. Biden’s statements from my mother’s home in Puerto Rico, I was grateful that he did not throw paper towels at locals or ask whether he could simply sell off colonial properties — as Donald Trump did in Puerto Rico in 2018. However, real change demands more than just the right optics and platitudes. It also requires a vision of reconstruction that addresses historical repair.

Hawaii residents, like Puerto Ricans, who faced disasters before them, are not asking to be saved. They ask only to be allowed to help themselves in the face of failing emergency services and federal aid. But the entrenched vulnerabilities produced by colonialism are not so easily overcome. For example, some residents have been begging tourists to stay away as the community recovers. But others have said that as much as they would like the time to mourn, they simply can’t afford it — especially when all they have received from the government is $700. This is what happens when your economy hinges on the pleasure of others.

Maui residents who were already being pushed out by unaffordable housing prices and a lack of career opportunities beyond hospitality will now probably feel the same push to migrate that Puerto Ricans did after Hurricane Maria. It will only worsen if weeks of absent federal aid turn into months of bureaucratic labyrinths and endless red tape, as has happened so often. Here again I think about how after Hurricane Maria only 40 percent of FEMA applicants received any aid at all and a little over 1 percent received the maximum payout.

The challenge of repairing damaged homes without adequate support — as well as persistent power outages, deteriorating bridges and a failing health system — has made it increasingly difficult for Puerto Ricans to stay put. This has combined with the influx of digital nomads and federal tax-evading millionaires, along with a growing Airbnb market that has priced many people out of their own communities.

The State of Hawaii has said it will protect locals from land speculators. But if the bureaucracy of emergency management stalls out or fails, people who have temporary hotel vouchers or are overstaying their welcome on their cousins’ couches will be left with few options other than to sell.

Opportunistic profiteering often follows an emergency, but it’s crucial to understand that those quick grabs of resources and power often depend on and exacerbate existing fault lines of imperial extraction.

The U.S. government has already acknowledged and formally apologized for its illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian government, but it has failed to repair the harms caused or the imperial legacies that endure. As for Puerto Rico, the U.S. government has never recognized wrongdoing, even as it continues to deny residents full citizenship or sovereignty.

Forging a sustainable postdisaster future for both Puerto Rico and Hawaii requires more than temporary shelters and quick fixes. It demands a reckoning with the entrenched systems of inequality that set the stage for these tragedies to begin with. A just recovery can’t be about bouncing back to a previous state of vulnerability, nor can it be about building back better without asking: Better for whom?

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Yarimar Bonilla, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author and editor of several books, including “Non-Sovereign Futures: French Caribbean Politics in the Wake of Disenchantment” and “Aftershocks of Disaster: Puerto Rico Before and After the Storm.”

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