Limahuli Valley Terraces

Name of case study

Limahuli Valley Terraces

Location

  •  Kauai
  • Hawai’i

Year

The Limahuli lava-rock terraces for growing taro (lo’i kalo) were built 700–1000 years ago. Restored in the 1960s.

Scale

landscape

Area / size

6.9 hectares

NbS employed

Slow-forming terraces

Type of NbS

 Created or constructed living ecosystems

Initiator

Indigenous people of Limahuli

Funder

Not applicable

Budget

Not applicable

Design group

Indigenous people of Limahuli

Limahuli, Kauai, Hawaiian Islands. Photo by Meyer, 2013.
The lowest part of the valley consists of several terraced lo‘i kalo (taro patches) and the Limahuli Gardens. Photo by Aloha from 808.
Climate change benefits
  • Biomass cover loss
  • Loss of food production
  • Reduced soil quality
  • Soil erosion
Societal / socio-cultural benefits
  • Economic and social development
  • Food security and quality
Ecological benefits
  • Climate regulation
  • Disturbance prevention (erosion, storm damage, flooding etc.)
  • Food production (for humans)
  • Nutrient cycling
  • Pollination
  • Purification (of water, soil, air)
  • Soil building
  • Species maintenance

Summary of case study

In Hawaiian lore, kalo (taro) holds a sacred position as Haloa-naka-lau-kapalili, the primordial ancestor (Meyer, 2014). Limahuli, on Kauai, is the largest of two valleys in the ahupua’a (traditional land management system) of Ha’ena. Well-known in ancient times because of its presence in song, chant, proverbs and poetry, Ha’ena was the setting for two chapters in the epic tale of Hi’iaka-i-ka-poli-o-pele (the youngest sister of Pele, goddess of lava). It is also one of only two places where the sacred ‘oahi (fireworks) ceremony was performed from atop the Makana mountain. In Limahuli Valley, part of the Hā’ena ahupua’a lava-rock terraces create wetland lo’i kalo (taro fields). These terraces, made centuries ago by native Hawai’ians, epitomise meticulous stone craftsmanship, conforming to the valley’s contours to create level platforms for farming on steep slopes. Building a lo’i kalo was labour-intensive and required constant maintenance and care.

East of Limahuli stream was a swampy area where taro was grown in a unique way that was practised in Limahuli and the marshes of Mana and Wai‘eli, west of Kekaha. Swamp earth was piled up on rafts that were partly submerged, probably resting on the soft bottom of the swamp, and taro was planted in the earth on these rafts. 

This ʻilipaʻa was likely inhabited until the mid-19th century when its abrupt abandonment may have been the result of sweeping changes in property tax laws throughout the Hawai’ian Kingdom. These policies reflected the broader social, political, and economic changes in Hawai‘i during that time.

Today, overgrown neke fern swamp hides the existence of the puna wai (fresh-water spring) that continues to seep from an opening in the valley wall. Channelled into the ʻauwai puhi (main irrigation ditch), gravity directs the flow of water, initially tracing its line along the base of the pali (cliff). The ditch crosses a small aqueduct-like structure and pools in a check dam. Finally, the water is distributed into the loʻi kalo

Ha’ena was one of the last standing and functioning ahupua’a in all of Hawai’i. In 1955, at the request of the Hui Ku’ai ‘Aina O Ha’ena, an association that had acquired the entire ahupua’a in 1875, the Fifth Circuit Court began proceedings to partition the land and create fee simple ownership of the ahupua’a. In 1976 the lower part of the Valley, now known as Limahuli Garden, was gifted to the National Tropical Botanical Garden.

Limahuli Garden and Preserve is now a puʻuhonua, a place of refuge, where Indigenous traditions and flourishing relationships continue. Limahuli is one of the last easily accessible valleys with intact archaeological complexes, native forest, pristine stream, and the presence of the descendants of the valley’s original inhabitants caring for it.

Functioning as water catchments and erosion barriers, the terraces amplify agricultural yields while symbolising a deep-rooted bond between the Hawai’ian people and their environment. These terraces remain a testament to Indigenous land stewardship, safeguarded within the Limahuli Garden and Preserve, fulfilling significant cultural and educational roles.

Read More
This map shows the pattern and intensity of taro pond (lo‘i) cultivation in Ha‘ena’s near-shore area (now Ha‘ena State Park). The two pond areas (loko) described by Handy are identified.
Redrawn from a State Parks Division map. Image from Pacific Worlds.
References
  • Earle, T. (1980). Prehistoric irrigation in the Hawaiian Islands: an evaluation of evolutionary significance. Archaeology & Physical Anthropology in Oceania, 15(1), 1-28.
  • Meyer, M. A. (2014). Hoea Ea: land education and food sovereignty in Hawaii. Environmental Education Research, 20(1), 98-101.

Further resources:

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