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Ahupuaʻa: a story of land and life

Ahupuaʻa: a story of land and life-Maui Kuʻia Estate Chocolate

What is an ahupuaʻa? Most people with a basic understanding of Hawaii would answer that an ahupuaʻa is a pie-shaped unit of land used by traditional Hawaiian society to divide the islands, but this is only half of the story. 

Our chocolate factory, Maui Kuʻia Estate Chocolate, is named after the ahupuaʻa on which our cacao farm stands, and we wanted to learn more about the history behind our home, so we invited two of Maui’s respected cultural advisors, Clifford Naeʻole and Kainoa Horcajo, to spend time with our team and to teach us about the land above and below the chocolate. Kuʻia, the name of both our company and our ahupuaʻa, means “spearhead” because the land was once a place for battle practice. 


We learned that ahupuaʻa is not just a way to divide land but a way of life. These triangles of land start small and narrow up high on the mauka (mountain) and widen as they grow towards the kai (ocean). Mr. Naeole told us a Hawaiian proverb that goes “Mai makaʻu I ka hana, makaʻu I ka moloa” that translates to “Don’t fear work, fear laziness.” He went on to explain that laziness was one of the worst sins to commit in the ahupuaʻa system because everyone relied upon everyone else. The balance of the ahupuaʻa was critical to its success. Each section of the ahupuaʻa had a purpose, and each individual had a responsibility (kuleana) to the land and community.


The top of the mountain was called wao akua, and this was a sacred place not for people but for the gods. Priests prayed here. And in the wao akua were the watersheds that supplied water to the streams flowing down the mountain slopes towards the sea, giving life to the land. The Hawaiian tradition believed the wao akua should remain untouched. The second highest section of the ahupuaʻa was the forested mountain area called wao kele where the large trees grew and where the streams started to divide. This was a hallowed place where people came and went but did not live. 


Next came the wao kanaka, which means the realm of man, and everyone lived and worked here. This area included the uplands, the coasts, and everything between. Each section of land had a different purpose. Each ahupuaʻa was able to sustain itself by growing and making everything important for the Hawaiian way of life—like koa wood for canoes, kukui nuts for oil, and kalo plants for poi. The wao kanaka ended at the coast, but the ahupuaʻcontinued on into the kai (sea) that provided food, salt, and recreation.

The ahupuaʻa community could only flourish when each individual worked hard and fulfilled the responsibility entrusted upon him or her. 


Kainoa Horcajo related the ahupuaʻa model to our chocolate. He said that the bottom of the ahupuaʻa is the “what,” meaning what we do when we show up for work each day. The middle of the mountain represents how we do our job—with hardwork and dedication. The top of the mountain is the “why” of what we do. Like in the ahupuaʻa model, the “why” feeds the “how” that creates the “what.” The “why” is the reason for being. 


He asked us to reflect on the “what”, “how”, and especially the “why” of our chocolate. Our “what” is one of the best chocolates in the world, made on Maui. The “how” is employing science and best practices to cultivate and process cacao with the same attitude that is applied to fine wine. Our “why” is the desire to strive for excellence, to accept responsibility, and to support our community—which is why our founder, Gunars, set up Maui Kuʻia Estate Chocolate to donate 100% of its net-profit to charities and nonprofits that support Maui. The community, the land, our chocolate, and our passion are all interlocked, supporting each other and driving us into the future. 


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