In the wake of the catastrophic fires that have decimated the historic town of Lahaina in Maui, developers have descended upon the island. The devastation has become a financial opportunity for developers to grab land from the fire’s survivors. [i] This is nothing new to the Hawaiian people. For over a century, Hawaiians have watched the displacement of their lands, a reprehensible legacy originating from the illegal overthrow of Queen Lili-uokalani and the seizing of the Kingdom of Hawai’i in 1893.[ii]

The current attempts at predatory land grabs have reignited conversations about the potential erasure of Maui’s cultural and environmental heritage in the pursuit of financial gain.[iii] Local residents are concerned that development in Lahaina threatens Hawaiians’ cultural traditions and the island’s identity, as Lahaina served as the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom and was the center of its government.[iv] Many Hawaiians still consider Lahaina to be the true capital of Hawai’i. But still, the fires indiscriminately destroyed at least 2,200 structures, about 1,500 of them residential.[v]

A significant proportion of the lost homes belonged to working-class families or were a part of housing projects.[vi] Consequently, the fire has exacerbated the scarcity of affordable housing and threatens to expedite the emigration of multi-generational families from Hawai’i in search of more affordable places to live.[vii] Hawai’i stands as the nation’s most expensive state for housing, with the Lahaina area ranking among the highest-priced regions in the state.[viii] The local communities have long experienced displacement due to the influx of wealthier out-of-state buyers capitalizing on Hawai’i’s low property tax and paradise charm.[ix] Accordingly, over the past decade, the number of Native Hawaiians in the state dropped below the number living on the mainland.[x] Now, in the aftermath of the fire, thousands of Maui residents are displaced and competing for the minimal housing that there is, minus everything that was lost in the fire.[xi] Predatory land grabbers are attempting to capitalize on resident’s fear and financial uncertainty, and many worry that people’s desperation may drive them to accept these offers.[xii]

Various organizations have urged the government to intervene against Maui land grabs, support displaced families, and ensure that recovery decisions are made with Native Hawaiians.[xiii] This is a crossroad in Hawaiian history which underscores the importance of having Hawaiian people participate in decisions concerning their lands. What happens in Lahaina can preserve its historical importance as the Hawaiian Kingdom’s capital or Lahaina be redeveloped in a manner that erases Hawaiian history, cultural heritage, and identity.[xiv]

There have been attempts from the federal and state governments to ease the financial strain that Maui’s residents face. Hawai’i’s governor, Josh Green, is looking into implementing a temporary ban on sales of any property damaged in the fire to safeguard residents from permanent displacement.[xv] However, he acknowledges that there are potential legal challenges such as laws that do not allow Hawai’i to restrict who can buy property in the state.[xvi]

Additionally, the Federal Emergency Management Agency gave a one-time payment of $700 per household to assist Maui survivors with immediate essentials.[xvii] Yet, criticism persists that the amount falls short in covering essentials such as clothing and food, as many Hawaiian households are multi-generational.[xviii]

Many fire-affected families are seeking legal recourse to regain their losses. [xix] At this time, Maui County officials have publicly blamed Hawaiian Electric Co. for the fires and several lawsuits have now been filed.[xx] Lawyers have flocked to Maui in search of prospective clients for their civil suits, bolstering their cases that could eventually result in multi-billion-dollar settlements.[xxi] However, legal battles can take years and Maui residents’ needs are urgent.

Ultimately, Native Hawaiians have sought self-determination over their lands for over a century now.[xxii] Gaining agency and decision-making power is a vital component in the healing process after the devastation brought by the fires.[xxiii] Hawaiians must have a say in what happens in Lahaina to ensure the safety of Hawaiian history, cultural heritage, and identity. As Maui attorney, Lance D. Collins has stated, “There is a tremendous amount of opportunity for the Hawaiian people and for the Lahaina community, and there’s also grave, grave danger.” [xxiv]


[i] Rachel Treisman, Maui’s Wildfires are Among the Deadliest on Record in the U.S. Here are Some Others, NPR (Aug. 15, 2023, 10:31 PM),,U.S.%20Here%20are%20some%20others&text=via%20Getty%20Images-,A%20wildfire%20in%20Maui%20destroyed%20the%20historic%20town%20of%20Lahaina,wildfire%20in%20over%20a%20century [].

[ii] Catherine Thorbecke, Fears of Predatory Land Grabs Mount in the Ashes of Maui, Opening Old Wounds, CNN (Aug. 17, 2023, 1:26 PM), [].

[iii] Jackie McKay, Native Hawaiians Fear Maui Wildfire Destruction Will Lead to their Cultural Erasure, CBC News (Aug. 17, 2023, 3:59 PM), [].

[iv] Reis Thebault, Native Hawaiians Organize Aid for Maui Fire Victims as Government Lags, Washington Post (Aug. 12, 2023, 11:25 AM), [].

[v] Kim Gamel, Hawaii Governor Seeks Moratorium on Property Sales in Lahaina, Honolulu Civil Beat (Aug. 14, 2023), [].

[vi] McKay, supra note 3.

[vii] Andrew Hay & Liliana Salgado, Maui Wildfire Victims Fear Land Grab May Threaten Hawaiian Culture, REUTERS (Aug. 22, 2023, 7:10 PM),,they%20can%20afford%20to%20live [].

[viii] Jill Cowan & Michael Corkery, After the Maui Fires, Locals Fear Being Shut Out of Recovery, New York Times (Aug. 14, 2023),,place%20for%20them%20in%20Lahaina.&text=Jill%20Cowan%20reported%20from%20Maui%2C%20Hawaii [].

[ix] Thorbecke, supra note 2.

[x] James Mak & Justin Tyndall, Aloha ‘Oe: Population Migration Between Hawaii and the U.S. Mainland, uhero (Aug. 6, 2020), []; Hay & Salgado, supra note 7.

[xi] Solcyre Burga, Hawaii Already had a Massive Homelessness Problem. The Maui Wildfires are Making it Worse, TIME (August 22, 2023, 12:46 PM), [].

[xii] McKay, supra note 3.

[xiii] Id.

[xiv] Id.

[xv] Gamel, supra note 5.

[xvi] Id.

[xvii] FEMA, Federal Partners Continue to Provide Critical Aid to Hawaii Wildlife Response and Recovery Efforts, FEMA (Aug. 16, 2023), [].

[xviii] Maureen Groppe & Francesca Chambers, Biden Visited Maui After Devastating Wildfires. He Was Met with Grief Over Relief Efforts, USA Today (Aug. 22, 2023, 11:55 AM), []/

[xix] Gamel, supra note 5.

[xx] Mitch Smith, Maui Officials Blame Utility for Allowing Deadly Fire to Start, New York Times (Aug. 24, 2023), [].

[xxi] Id.

[xxii] Kimmy Yam, Why Hawaiian Sovereignty has Undeniable Context for the Maui Fires, NBC News, (Aug. 24, 2023, 4:39 PM), [].

[xxiii] Id.

[xxiv] McKay, supra note 3.

Friday, September 1, 2023