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Hart Crowser Hawai‘i Office He‘eia Work Day

He‘eia Stream Estuary

The Hart Crowser Hawai‘i team working at He‘eia Stream Estuary. In the area in the right half of this photo we’ve removed the invasive knot grass. The remaining akulikuli is looking a bit trampled, but will recover quickly and thrive.

On Wednesday, June 27, the Honolulu staff each dedicated a vacation day to volunteer with Hui Ko‘olaupoko (HOK) at He‘eia, O‘ahu. HOK is a non-profit watershed management group established in 2007 to work with communities to improve water quality through ecosystem restoration and storm water management, focusing specifically in the Ko‘olaupoko region on windward O‘ahu. HOK’s mission is to protect ocean health by restoring the ‘āina: mauka to makai (land: mountain to sea).

HOK implements innovative projects that effectively manage and protect water quality and natural resources. Projects have included storm water low-impact development projects such as rain gardens, and other watershed focused projects.

The He‘eia estuary restoration project is a collaboration with several other non-profits to restore the ecosystem of He‘eia Stream. This project is aimed at improving water quality and increasing habitat for native aquatic animal species by removing invasive plants and replanting native Hawaiian species. In the past 3 years, about 4 acres of mangrove have been cleared and native species planted. Our work for the day consisted of removing invasive “knot grass” from the estuary flats where it was overwhelming the native vegetation that was planted following removal of the mangrove.

For the plant nerds among us, the predominant native vegetation we protected in the estuary flats were:

  • Akulikuli (Sesuvium portulacastrum), an indigenous coastal succulent ground cover that has been very successful in the estuary
  • Mau‘u‘aki‘aki (Fimbristylis cymosa), a sedge that forms short, rounded tufts of light green narrow, stiff, erect blades
  • Ahuawa (Mariscus javanicus), a greenish blue rush with beautiful brown spiky umbrella flowers/seed pods

We also got to see many native and rare species that have been planted along the stream bank, including Ilima with its tiny flowers that need about 500 to make a lei!); Lama; Ohai; and Mao hau hele. All of these plants have interesting cultural uses and significance, well explained at these website links by our friends at Hui Kū Maoli Ola, an amazing native plant nursery in upper He‘eia.

One of the delights of working on this project was getting to visit the adjacent He‘eia Fishpond. Paepae o Heeia, another non-profit, has been restoring the 88-acre, 800-year-old fishpond since 2001. He’eia Fishpond was likely constructed by hundreds, if not thousands, of Hawaiians who passed and stacked rocks and coral for approximately 2-3 years to complete the 1.3-mile wall. Fishponds helped Hawaiians practice sustainable aquaculture long before western contact. There are only a few fishponds remaining of the approximately 100 that are known to have existed on O‘ahu, as most have been destroyed by development. Restoration of remaining fishponds has been a big part of the Hawaiian cultural renaissance over the past 25 years. While we didn’t work on the fishpond itself, we were able to cross the stream to walk on the fishpond walls (which are dry stacked!), to view the functioning sluice gates, and to learn more about fishponds.

We had a fun team-building day that successfully cleared invasive species from a large area, and learned a bit more about native plants and Hawaiian culture around fishponds. Thanks to HOK for hosting us, and kudos to our Hawai‘i team for being adventurous and volunteering their own time to take on this project!

Ko‘olau mountains

The beautiful Ko‘olau mountains in the distant background, a portion of the fishpond wall and sluice hale in the midground, and our team working hard in the foreground.

Walking on Fishpond Wall

Walking on the fishpond wall after a long day of work; the enclosed fishpond is to the left, with the open waters of Kāne‘ohe Bay to the right.

Hawaii team

Our Hawaii team is all smiles visiting He‘eia Fishpond after a long day of work helping to restore He‘eia Estuary.

Sluice gates

The working mākāhā (sluice gates) of He‘eia Fishpond.

Ilima,official flower of O‘ahu

The beautiful native Ilima, the official flower of O‘ahu. The little flowers are treasured for lei – it takes more than 500 of these flowers to make a delicate and special lei.

 

Volunteering with the Children of the Night

Guatemala

Nick Galvin, Hart Crowser environmental scientist, is in Guatemala with his family to volunteer for the Xeroderma Pigmentosum Project.

A bumpy two hours from the nearest “town” of Santa Cruz Barillas, a padlocked chain stretches across the one-lane dirt road. The volunteer team’s diesel Land Cruiser rumbles to a halt. Another Guatemalan road toll. The chain falls and they continue on their way. The small village in the mountainous Huehuetenango department comes into view; the rusting corrugated-steel rooftops of the small village sprawl on the steep mountainsides. The scent of cardamom wafts through the air. Along with maize, cardamom is the local cash-crop.

The volunteer team consists of four. Milo and Dalila, who grew up there and have family in the area, plus Nick Galvin and his wife Bree. Dalila has worked as an un-trained nurse with these families for over fifteen years and Milo is the driver. They serve as translators from Spanish to Canjobal—the native Mayan dialect. Many there know only a few words of Spanish or none at all.

They park on a ridge between two deteriorating wooden school houses. The kids peer between the cracks to get a better look at the two extranjeros (foreigners). They don’t know it yet, but the road to this house will be impassable in two weeks from the incoming rains. From there they walk 15 minutes through hillsides of cardamom, meeting one of the program’s oldest children.

Cardamom fields

Bree en route through the cardamom fields.

At 16 years old, she is hardly a child. But after losing her eyesight and numerous surgeries to remove cancerous growths, she is completely dependent on her family for care. The disease has wracked her body and she suffers daily, but greets the team warmly. Her family’s house consists of two rooms: a smoky cooking area, where an open fire heats a listing metal cooktop surrounded by a couple of plastic chairs; and a sleeping area, where the entire family sleeps on uneven wooden-board beds. The floors are dirt and slope gently with the hillside. There is no electricity, toilet, or running water.

For a little over a month now, the team has been working with several families in this community suffering from Xeroderma pigmentosum or XP. XP is an unimaginably debilitating disease. Those suffering from XP are unable to repair damage from UV-radiation (i.e., the sun). This in turn leads to aggressive skin cancers and extreme photosensitivity, often at a very young age.

XP is an autosomal recessive genetic disease. Think back to freshman-year biology with Punnett Squares and Mendel’s Peas. A person suffering from the condition must have two affected alleles – one from each parent. The inheritance pattern is similar to red hair, blue eyes, or green peas, but with a much more drastic outcome. A person with only one affected allele (a portador, or carrier) can lead a normal life, with no adverse effects.

Punnett Square

Punnett Square showing regular distribution of “regular” (Y) and “affected” (y) alleles and outcome for a recessive trait – green peas. Photo courtesy of Quizlet

The majority of children in Santa Cruz Barillas are not well protected from sun exposure. Often, diagnosis occurs when the child begins to develop hyperpigmentation (darker spots) on the most exposed areas of their body; their face, neck, and arms. Many of these will become skin cancer. Shortly after, if still unprotected, the child will begin to lose his eyesight and exposure to bright light will become extremely painful.

Battling this horrific disease is beyond difficult. The only real “treatment” for those suffering from XP is an early-age diagnosis and vigilant sun protection—avoiding all exposure to sunlight. The only true way to achieve this is to stay indoors in a closed room during all daylight hours. This can have drastic psychological effects. Many houses don’t have electricity or artificial light sources, so this leads to a life sequestered inside, alone and in the dark.

In this village, generations have lived and intermarried, spreading the XP gene throughout the population. However, this is only one reason this disease is so rampant. Many still reject outside aid and chose to believe in archaic explanations; curses, spiritual intervention, or a divine form of punishment. Lack of education about the disease allows these ideas to perpetuate. Some families choose to hide (or worse, abandon) affected children. However, many do not and there is a growing contingent working to eradicate the disease.

Village center

Village center and an omnipresent Land Cruiser shuttle.

In reality, the only true method of prevention is selective reproduction. By knowing who the carriers in the community are, carriers can avoid marrying one another. This slowly dilutes and removes the affected gene from the population. Working with the community, this is a project that their organization has been heavily involved with. Through genetic testing, they have identified the families with the gene and carriers in the village. They have encouraged open communication between the carriers, families, and community, and provided scholarships for carriers to attend college outside of the area. This both elevates the family economically and provides them with an opportunity to find a partner outside of the village. They hope that this information, combined with genetic counselling and education, will allow the village to move closer to eradicating XP from their community.

Other ongoing projects focus on improving the health and quality of life of individuals living with XP. Many of the children have parasitic infections from questionable drinking water sources. Many don’t have sufficient clothing or shoes. All of the children are malnourished. A typical diet consists only of maize tortillas, beans, and the occasional vegetable or fruit. One project the team has spearheaded since they arrived is vegetable gardens. By providing the materials for gardens and classes in fertilizing, composting, and maintenance, they can provide access to a sustainable, healthier diet for the families and children.

Without a doubt, it has been an incredible experience. Staying in the village and working in the families’ homes is a sobering view into their lifestyles and the unimaginable conditions many have to endure. There is an imposing amount of work that could be done to improve the living conditions and quality of life for many of these families. For Nick and his family knowing that they were able to help—even just a small amount—is incredibly rewarding.

Due to the sensitive nature of this disease and the volunteers’ agreement with the community, they could not provide photos of the families or children.

More information about XP

Sources: Up-to-Date, Medscape