All across the United States, Indigenous peoples suffer higher rates of mortality than other ethnic groups, largely due to poorer diets and other colonial stressors that have completely altered their traditional lifeways.

One nonprofit organization in Hawai‘i, Malama Waimānalo, is attempting to improve food production through aquaponics. In Hawaiian, malama means “to take care of or protect,” and waimānalo, also a name of a community on O‘ahu, means “potable water.” The program was founded to test “culturally grounded family-based backyard aquaponics intervention,” according to the organization’s website. Now, the program is working to expand its operations to other communities and islands, bringing malama to more Hawaiians.

Aquaponics is the combination of cultivating fish (aquaculture) and plants in water (hydroponics). Essentially, it is a method of growing animal protein in a confined space with practically no waste materials. Bacteria in the tank convert ammonia from fish waste into nitrates. Nitrates then serve as a nutrient to plants.

Aquaponics as practiced by Malama is a powerful system utilizing ancient Indigenous knowledge, improved with contemporary materials and methods. Much criticism can be made of the food systems that exist in contemporary society that are harmful to human and environmental health, including mass monoculture cultivation, soil degradation, chemical use, and food waste, which is an enormous sector of global carbon emissions today. The result is not only the destruction of biodiversity, but also of ideas.

In Hawai‘i, Malama’s founder, Ilima Ho-Lastimosa, was “doing a lot of food sovereignty work, traditional gardening, and connecting it to kids,” says Jane Chung-Do, the organization’s public health researcher and an assistant professor of public health at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. Ho-Lastimosa’s vision was to preserve Native Hawaiian culture, founding a nonprofit in 2005 called God’s Country Waimanalo. The vision would grow into one that focused on ecological practices and the health benefits of returning to traditional diets.

Malama Waimānalo, as the organization was renamed, incorporated that cultural legacy into a program focused on backyard aquaponics. Ho-Lastimosa “just really saw the need for Hawaiian families to get interested in family-based, multigenerational, culture-based activities,” Chung-Do says.

Read the full article about aquaponics and Indigenous communities by Kayla DeVault at YES! Magazine.