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From Hawaii to Haiti, We Must Center Decolonization in Our Climate Action

Tourist “paradises” come at a steep price paid by native islanders and local ecosystems.

The Flag of Hawaii waves by a sign reading "Tourist Keep Out" in the aftermath of the Maui wildfires in Lahaina, Hawaii, on August 16, 2023.

Wildfires raged through Maui this month, leaving a wake of devastation as residents struggled to survive. More than 100 people are confirmed dead, while thousands remain missing. The wildfires began from multiple unrelated fires, some igniting because of power lines that were fanned by strong hurricane season winds. The emergency alert system didn’t activate, leaving residents unprepared. This led to fires that engulfed different parts of the island, destroying homes, forests and communities. In Lahaina, a town in West Maui, hundreds of residents were displaced and many were forced to jump into the ocean to avoid the fires.

As Native Hawaiians and local communities attempt to rebuild, some have expressed disgust as they witness news coverage focus on tourism during such harrowing times. Survivors are frustrated that the image of Hawaii as a perfect paradise is overshadowing the needs of the people who call it home. They are shocked to see tourists reaching the island faster than government relief efforts. Native Hawaiians and locals have condemned news outlets and local governments for encouraging tourists to return as victims are coping with this disaster. The mayor of Maui County, Richard Bissen, announced that Maui is open for business and suggested that tourists should just avoid the western part of the island where fires wreaked the most havoc. Native Hawaiians have clashed with tourists for decades, as they confront skyrocketing housing costs and the degradation of the island’s ecology. In the wake of this disaster, the focus on tourism is tactless and disturbing.

As a Caribbean American, I’ve witnessed similar discourse centering on tourism when Caribbean islands face natural disasters, and I share the frustration. A week after the devastating Hurricane Irma left 134 people dead, news articles circulated evaluating the impact on Caribbean tourist destinations. From Hawaii to Haiti, island nations are facing the brunt of climate change, and colonial exploitation is a root cause of the perpetuation and maintenance of systems that devastate our environment and communities. This is why a decolonial perspective is key to protect the island nations — and their inhabitants — from climate destruction.

A History of Colonization in Hawaii and the Caribbean

Hawaii was dominated by U.S. corporations, and their queen was then deposed and the island annexed by the U.S. government during the end of the 19th century. Hawaii’s economy was shifted to focus on exporting nonnative agricultural goods.

I am no stranger to the tendency to put profit over people when it comes to islands. The Caribbean is the most tourist-dependent region in the world, and islanders remain among the most vulnerable to climate change. Like Hawaii, colonialism and neoliberalism in the Caribbean has forced islands to rely on tourism to sustain their economies. The contemporary dependence on tourism from the Global North is an extension of colonial control.

The Caribbean islands experienced colonial domination from various European countries beginning in the 15th century. Our economies were centered around plantations and exporting food goods, displacing native populations and enslaving Black people. As neoliberal systems emerged in the 20th century, tourist economies dominated the Caribbean and Hawaii, keeping them dependent on the Global North for revenue. Our homes have become paradises for people of the Global North to flee their everyday troubles and relax. Our palm trees, music, culture and food are reduced to an amusement park for others to enjoy.

However, paradise comes at a steep price. It is exasperating to witness the richness of your culture and heritage reduced to a fun tourist spot. I resent that people can enjoy my home for a week-long relaxation trip, while my family struggles to survive there, and sometimes must immigrate. Tourists have the luxury of residing in the illusion of paradise as locals face the devastating effects of a tourism-dependent economy. The lack of social mobility, unequal development and ecological degradation remain after tourists go back home. Like Hawaii, Caribbean islands have faced a transformation and degradation of their ecology because of colonialism and tourism. Tourist economies are extremely resource-draining, and divert limited resources away from residences to tourists. For example, tourists in Hawaii and the Caribbean overuse limited supplies of fresh water for golf courses and pools, over locals who use the water to drink and bathe. In Hawaii a water crisis persists, as locals must restrict water use while the water-intensive tourist sector continues to boom.

Tourist economies also introduce invasive plant and animal species, which deplete resources and out-compete native species, and degrade natural climate-resilient ecological systems. These invasive species, and the degradation of native species, is often done to maintain the illusion of paradise. In the case of Maui, highly flammable overgrown invasive grass species contributed to the wildfires. These grasses were used to feed nonnative livestock and for ornamental reasons, for the aesthetic of a well-groomed vacation spot. This is at the expense of native grass species and their distribution patterns that are more fire-resistant. In the Caribbean, a similar issue is arising: Invasive seagrass is overrunning islands and native seagrass is removed from beaches for aesthetic reasons, deeply impacting local ecosystems. Invasive species weaken islands’ natural resilient barriers to climate change, leaving communities even more vulnerable to disaster. Unlike tourists, invasive species won’t head home when a hurricane is forecast to hit; this is their home.

What Does Decolonized Climate Action Look Like?

When thinking about what just climate action looks like, we must consider the effects of tourist economies on the ecology of communities, especially coastal communities and small island nations. Islands are a part of keystone global ecological systems, and the survival of islands are linked to the survival of everyone. To address the effects of tourist economies, a decolonial lens is useful. Islanders across the world have survived for millennia before colonial structures of unsustainable agriculture and over-tourism were established. From the Pacific islands to the Caribbean, regenerative economies that don’t exploit people and the planet must be rediscovered.

Local and Indigenous communities are already moving to invest in alternative options for livelihoods outside of over-tourism. This can look like rediscovering regenerative farming methods with native plants and extending the life of goods (especially those from nonrenewable resources) by creating opportunities to reuse, repair, recycle, revalue and recover. In the Caribbean, communities are coming together to invest in circular economies through the Latin America and the Caribbean Circular Economy Coalition. In Hawaii and Caribbean, some locals are establishing traditional food forests or agroforestry reviving various local methods. The Hawaiian state senate continues to consider bills that promote regenerative practices. Some Native Hawaiians are organizing for political sovereignty. Similar sovereignty movements are growing in popularity among many Caribbean islands that are still experiencing colonial domination. Even independent Caribbean countries have burgeoning movements challenging neoliberal domination.

The horrible fires of Maui have left communities devastated but not defeated. As local communities and Native Hawaiians begin to rebuild, concerns about the effects of tourist economies remain. Islanders across the world, like my home in the Caribbean, share these concerns as they face ecological degradation and climate disaster because of a tourist-centered economy. To consider economies outside the confines of tourism, a decolonial lens is imperative.

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