Planting koa to save an island and a culture.


At the end of the 18th century, Captain George Vancouver, a British officer of the Royal Navy, gifted four bulls and eight cows to King Kamehameha I. Thanks to a kapu, a restriction he placed on hunting the feral cattle, around 25,000 cattle were freely roaming Hawai‘i Island by 1846, and 10,000 heads more were thought to be semi-domesticated. The cattle were destroying crops and native forests at an alarming rate, forcing Kamehameha I to lift the kapu to allow his people to hunt the wild ungulates. Unfortunately, the damage to Hawai‘i Island’s native forests had already occurred, altering thousands of acres of upcountry forests to grass-covered pastureland.


Fast-forward two centuries from that fateful gift to King Kamehameha I, and over on O‘ahu, a Hawai‘i musician named Joe Souza took first place at a falsetto song contest. The grand prize was a trip to Kaua‘i. Joe and his wife, Kristen, decided to turn down the road less traveled and they spent their vacation checking out parcels of land. It was their dream to one day buy land and plant native trees.

After learning about the need for reforestation efforts on Hawai‘i Island, they turned their attention to the southeastern tip of the Hawaiian archipelago. Their dream became reality in 2014 when they purchased a 96-acre parcel of land in Kealakekua on the leeward side of the Big Island. At an elevation of 4,000 feet, the perfect climate for koa trees, Reforest Hawai‘i was born.


The first task entailed fencing the property to keep out unwanted feral ungulates and clearing invasive plants. For the past two hundred years, cattle had grazed the majority of the Souza’s ranch, leaving only a few mature trees sparsely dotting the property. After a year of hard labor and preparation, all 96 acres were ready for planting. Koa can grow at just about any elevation on any side of the island, but it thrives in the high-elevation, mesic (wet) forests on the Big Island. Lucky for Reforest Hawai‘i, its 96-acre parcel, sitting at about 4,000 feet above sea level, had the remnants of an old growth koa forest. The Souzas were able to utilize the mother trees, the kupuna trees, for their seed stock. Over 5,000 juvenile koa trees were lovingly planted into the red soil.



Koa, Acacia koa, are canopy trees endemic to Hawai‘i and easily distinguished by its sickle-shaped leaves. In pre-contact times, Koa wood was highly valued and was used to make many items, from canoes to hair picks. Since its discovery by the Western world, over 90 percent of all koa forests in Hawai‘i have been cleared.


Anyone who is interested in contributing to the reforestation of the land, even small businesses and corporations, can sponsor a tree. Sponsors receive a certificate of planting with the specific trees GPS coordinates, its forest location and the ID number of the tree. Koa trees are planted by hand at Reforest Hawai‘i by staff and volunteers. After the keiki koa tree is placed in the hole in the ground and covered with the same dirt that was dug from the hole, water is poured from an ipu wai, a watering gourd, over the hands of the planter and the tree, connecting the life-giving water with the person, the tree, and the land.

Reforest Hawai‘i is dedicated to restoring not just koa tree forests, but entire native Hawaiian forest ecosystems. In addition to planting koa trees, they are also planting ‘ililahi (Hawaiian sandalwood), māmane, māmaki, and native hibiscus in hopes of attracting native birds and insects as well.


The first 10 acres were successfully planted out in 2017 and the Souza’s aim to plant 8,800 plants in 2018, followed by 8,000 more plants each year for the next three years. They’ve even purchased a 162-acre parcel in the vicinity of the ranch to expand their reforestation efforts. These trees will live on in perpetuity, a reforestation effort that will provide a critical native Hawaiian forest ecosystem for the land, the animals, and the people of Hawai‘i.