The march to protest the agricultural practices of agribusiness giant Monsanto Corp. drew an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 activists to the street on Saturday, March 23. Roadside sign waving, long a favorite tool of candidates and labor unions here, got its own extreme makeover as the largest political gathering in recent memory paraded down Ka'ahumanu Avenue. Their purpose was to raise concerns about the company and its genetically modified products.
For Maui, this was something new: equal parts protest, street theater and Mardi Gras. It was big, colorful, creative, lively, cheerful, friendly and loud.
There were hundreds of large, bright, original, handmade signs; they were --without exception--highly critical of Monsanto, its presence on the Valley Isle and the genetically modified seed corn it is growing here.
Ahana Kapuni of Kaupō and Marta Sweeney from Upcountry were among the thousands who participated in the March 23 protest aimed at Monsanto and its genetically modified crops.
Photo: Susan Halas
The thousands who walked the 1.8-mile route from the War Memorial parking lot to Maui Mall, the site of a local health food market, was far larger than any turnout mustered roadside by traditional candidates and only matched by a few of the largest (but far less vocal) charity walks.
As the forward edge of "No-GMO" marchers approached the main entrance of the University of Hawai'i Maui College campus at Wakea Avenue, the back end of the procession was just turning the corner onto Ka'ahumanu Avenue at Kanaloa Street.
This was not a thin, scrawny, single-file line. Throngs of people jammed the sidewalk. There were clusters and clumps of participants carrying homemade signs of every description, waving banners, flags and shouting "Hell NO GMO" and "Evict Monsanto" as they marched.
Some of the signs were also critical of Kamehameha Schools, which leases agricultural land to the company.
The cries of the marchers were accompanied by a variety of drums, rattles, tambourines and other noisemakers. Passing cars honked back as passengers extended high fives, shakas and shouts in support.
As the tide of people rolled by, every possible species was represented, including examples from the animal, vegetable and possibly mineral kingdoms (or dressed in costumes of those realms). Whether dressed as an ear of corn or in denim for a casual weekend stroll, the marchers were joined by a large assortment of babies, dogs, strollers, wagons, bikes, wheelchairs and other rolling stock.
The protesters used many theatrical effects to make their point, including attention-getters like an inflated cow suit and a sarong-wrapped gentleman sporting a gas mask. Another marcher wore a hydra-headed snake hat symbolizing what he perceived as the multiple ill effects of Monsanto's presence. Keeping it local, they also carried coconuts, waved ti leaves and wore haku lei. Surfboards emblazoned with messages were carried overhead as walking billboards.
To frost the cake, it rained--not a deluge, but a nice, warm, steady, prolonged spring downpour that drenched everyone to the skin. As the weather improved, the line of marchers reeked of wet fur and human hair. The scent of certain popular aromatic herb also drifted through the air.
The marchers were there to make it clear there is strength in numbers. It would be hard to dismiss a group this size as a fringe element. It is unknown if they are also registered voters, but if they are--the next election should bring some new dialog to the political process.
The event was sponsored by the Hawai'i GMO Justice Coalition and a series of affiliated anti-GMO groups. It was one of an ongoing series held around the state during March. Similar events have already been held on O'ahu, Kaua'i, and Hawai'i Island. A Molokai march was scheduled for March 30.
Organized and widely touted on social media, the turnout also illustrated that the Internet has become the effective mobilization tool of choice here.
Conspicuous by their absence were local elected officials. State Sen. Roz Baker (D-West Maui, South Maui) was the object of a number of signs that objected to her refusal to hold hearings on related GMO food labeling legislation in the Hawai'i State Senate this year.
Freshman Maui state Rep. Kaniela Ing (D-South Maui) posted comments on Facebook calling GMO labeling "common sense and inevitable." Ing also said he was unable to get a ticket to return to Maui to participate in the event.
There were no visible Monsanto supporters present.
Asked for a reaction, Carol Reimann, Monsanto Hawai'i Government & Community Affairs representative on Maui, responded the next day in written comments, "We respect everyone's right to voice their opinion. Unfortunately, we've heard many misleading and factually incorrect statements made about genetically engineered foods. We realize the topic is complex, and that people have questions. We are committed to transparency and are happy to have an open, respectful dialogue with anyone genuinely interested in taking the time to learn more about who we are and what we do."