The next day I drive up the volcanic range that bisects the island and toward the protest march in Hale’iwa. I pass the silly Dole Plantation tourist trap where the fruit company grows pineapple only for show. After a century of dominance on the islands, pineapples are now grown cheaper and more efficiently in Costa Rica. I drive past land that used to be sugarcane as far as the eye can see. But sugarcane is produced cheaper and more efficiently in Brazil these days. Pineapple and sugarcane fields, now deserted, are the ghosts of agribusinesses that once ruled virtually every part of Hawaiian life. The barons used the islands as personal piggy banks, caring little for the ecosystem or the local population. And just as I drop down the other volcanic side, the North Shore splayed before me, I see a street sign that reads Adopt a highway, Litter control next two miles: Monsanto Company.
Monsanto was drawn to Hawaii for some of the same reasons that attracted the pineapple and sugar interests, namely its nutritious volcanic soil and its perfect, perpetually 75-degree weather. The islands are like a giant greenhouse. On the mainland most crops have one growing season, maybe two. In Hawaii they can have up to four, which suits Monsanto’s purposes. More harvest cycles mean more seeds, and large tracts of land have been opened on Oahu, Maui, Kauai and Molokai to meet the seed demands of the world’s farmers. These demands have made the seed industry Hawaii’s largest agricultural sector. Worth more than $240 million, it is responsible for a third of Hawaii’s agricultural income. While valuable to Hawaii’s fragile, tourism-heavy economy, the income does little to settle the apprehensions of men like Eddie Rothman.
And Rothman is not alone, not by far. When I exit the main road toward Hale’iwa, hundreds of protesters have already grouped together near the 7-Eleven at the south end of town, or the “bottom” as it is called. It’s a motley bunch: moms pushing strollers, old people with canes, chunky white transplants in awful denim shorts, surfers, Japanese tourists, dreadlocked hippies banging on ukuleles, girls in bikinis, tough mokes. Moke is Hawaiian slang for an aggressive “braddah” who wears “da rubba slippas” and punches haoles. Haole is Hawaiian slang for “white man.” Everyone has a sign with some variation on the demand that Monsanto leave Hawaii. Pit bulls roam freely. A man wearing a V for Vendetta mask tells a man with a head as big as a Fiat, “Look at those clouds, brah. I hope they don’t chemtrail us.” It is a widely held belief here that Monsanto dumps heavy metals into the clouds in order to control the weather. As expected, Monsanto denies the protesters’ claims, of chemtrailing and otherwise.
Across the parking lot a giant pickup truck draped in Hawaiian flags is surrounded by men wearing red Da Hui T-shirts. There is Kala Alexander, a surfer and actor who became famous as the unlikely star of a series of YouTube videos featuring the beatdowns he gave surfers who showed disrespect in the waves. Those videos are a relic of his past. Alexander’s most recent activist star turn is as a concerned citizen speaking out against the encroachments of the biotech companies in a documentary about GMOs and Hawaii.
Rothman stands with the protesters, arms folded across his chest like a sentinel, and lets the others do the talking. As I approach, he says, “You gotta meet the guys who started the march,” and walks me over to two men busily directing the proceedings. “These are the real people. These are the ones changing shit.”
One of them is Dustin Barca, a professional surfer and also an MMA fighter from Kauai. He is handsome, with severely cauliflowered ears. “Five years ago I started studying, reading, watching the movies about GMOs,” he says. “I wanted to get my facts straight before acting. I learned how damaging they are to the people and to the land. It is poison. And so now I want to build awareness. I want to educate the local people on what is happening. I’m not interested in saving the world. I’m interested in saving my island.”
Rarely is a word spoken here today that isn’t rooted in fierce localism. Walter Ritte, standing next to Barca, nods his head in approval. Ritte, older and slight with a full gray beard, is from Molokai and is a legend among Hawaiian activists. His involvement in the GMO debate is tied to the University of Hawaii’s genetic experiments with taro, a traditional Hawaiian root. “Taro is a family member for Hawaiians,” he told me. “It is our firstborn. If they’re going to mess with our firstborn then they’re going to mess with us. This whole GMO issue is so complicated, and I like to make it simple. Basically GMOs package us, they own us. And I would like to tell them—the companies—if you hurt our culture and you hurt our land, you’re in for trouble.”
In days past, Da Hui would have brought the trouble immediately and violently on the interlopers, but today its members have signs and slogans and bullhorns. They are joined in solidarity with farmers and other citizens, joined not by surfing but by living in and loving Hawaii. The march begins, and the energized crowd chants, “Thanks for visiting. Now go home like the rest of the tourists!” People fill the Kamehameha Highway, smiling, chanting and trading horror stories about the evils of GMOs and “Mon-Satan.” I hear many stories about a Monsanto property on Oahu called the Kunia research farm. People say fish DNA is put into strawberries there and 70 different kinds of chemicals are used on the crops. They say Monsanto is destroying Hawaii’s native species by making Frankencrops that cross-pollinate with everything. They say the farm is killing all the bees and changing the weather, and that it isn’t from here. They say the farm does not belong here.
There was a time when Rothman was the interloper, the unknown quantity on the North Shore. Although many people assume he is Hawaiian, he was born Jewish in Philadelphia. “I don’t know nothing about Jew stuff, but once this lady on the North Shore made me some Jew food and it was good,” he tells me. He has said that his mother physically abused him as a boy. Eventually she left, and his father moved to Long Beach, California with him. “My father would fucking beat the shit out of me because I was little, and that made him mad.” Eventually Eddie’d had enough. When he was 14 years old he stole enough money out of his father’s wallet for a one-way ticket to Honolulu. He had surfed in California and had seen the surf-ploitation films featuring Hawaii, with its perfect giant waves, palm trees, white sand and easy smiles.
He landed in Honolulu knowing no one. He knew only that something felt almost right. He stayed in Honolulu for a few years, flying to southern California to pick up marijuana and bring it back to Hawaii. He briefly went to school in Long Beach. “I went to school a couple of times, but the school told me if I didn’t show up, they would pass me.” He eventually moved permanently to the North Shore. It had everything he needed: surf, sun, a market for his marijuana. And as a 16-year-old he would get by selling it and stealing cars.
One bright day he was in the bushes at the Sunset, one of the North Shore’s famous wave breaks, breaking into cars, when he ran into a pack of Hawaiian locals who were doing the same thing. How did they come to accept this unlikely outsider? “I don’t talk good,” says Rothman. “I have bad speech like them, so it was easy, and everything went from there. I sounded like them, and they just accepted that I was like them.” He was tenacious, so they flew him around the islands to crack heads for such offenses as not paying debts within an appropriate time. When I suggest that the tough Hawaiians had adopted him, he bristles. “They didn’t adopt shit. I proved myself every fucking day. I proved myself with these.” Again, he holds up a fist. A scarred, tooth-nicked fist. On the North Shore, not speaking well goes only so far.
Of all the enemies Rothman has faced over the years, Monsanto is by far the biggest and most elusive. Bloomberg reports that the company did $5.47 billion in revenue in this year’s second quarter alone. It, along with the other seed companies, owns or leases 25,000 acres on the islands.
Before arriving in Hawaii, Monsanto had perfected its craft. Company scientists were among the first to genetically modify a plant cell in their laboratories, and they knew they had struck gold. Traditional seeds cannot be patented, since they occur naturally. Genetically modified seed, on the other hand, can be, as ruled by the U.S. Supreme Court. The company realized it could make a higher-yielding, more-rugged product through science, and it could better monetize that product by applying patent law. And Monsanto protects these patents fiercely, suing any farmer who dares replant instead of purchasing. The company argues that it has spent billions of dollars perfecting these seeds and it only makes sense to recoup investment costs. The Supreme Court agrees. In May, the Court ruled that farmers are not allowed to replant Monsanto seed but must repurchase yearly. To many farmers, Roundup’s near silver-bullet-like effectiveness is worth the cost. Still, Rothman takes issue with this, seeing it as a form of extortion. Just as offensive to him is how close Monsanto is to his home. How it looms in his backyard. “That farm is fucking evil,” he adds to the chorus, near the end of the march.