INTERVIEW: CW farmer Jim Albertini in Hawai`i

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 16, Pentecost 2000

Q. Jim, you came to Hawaii to live and start a Catholic Worker farm. What year was that?

A. I came to Hawaii in 1970 to teach school, but more and more I felt the call to the simple life, the stand point of the taro patch, as we call it. Or in the Catholic Worker sense, the agrarian university as a standpoint for working for justice and peace. The injustice related to land as the key. And I think it is important to narrow the credibility gap between the words about justice and our actual stand point. So I always talk about the importance of the land issues in our struggle for a nuclear independent and free Pacific. A family said to us, ‘we have this piece of land in the family that has not been used. If you can make use of it we’d be glad to donate it’. So that was the framework for setting up this non-profit land trust. It is called the Malu Aina Center for Non-violent Education and Action. Quite a mouthful, huh? It was to be used as a justice and peace center and passed on to future generations. That was 1980. So for six years we lived in tents here and little by little added some simple structures but we always wanted to live without the normal American lifestyle. So that is why we catch our own rainwater. We also use small scale solar energy, compost and toilet, and we grow a lot of fruit, both our own and to share with people in need.

So I think that we are strong in the Catholic Worker tradition. But when people ask us what is our main crop I always answer ‘it’s justice, that’s our main crop, it’s justice and peace’. It is more like a Ghandi model. Ghandi, a British barrister, saw that it was important to stand with the ordinary people of India in their work for independence. And that was the small village setup. So that’s what we’ve tried to be about. Its been quite an experiment over the years. But I think it is an important one. I hope it can be multiplied. We have a gross system here in Hawaii for lands being used for cash cropping, sugar plantation, pineapple and other export crops.

Q. So are you now relatively self sufficient in vegetables and fruit?

A. We grow a lot of vegetables and fruit and fish. We raise our own fish here — the St Peters fish, a native of the Sea of Galilee, and a tropical Chinese catfish. And we do not do this just for our own needs but to be models. The people have to see hopeful signs. So we raise some things hydroponically, because around here a lot of people are living on lava land. They don’t have deep soil. And the same with the fish. We are in a high rainfall area so how can people without a lot of resources develop homestead models? How can you survive outside of the capitalist system becoming wage slaves, eight to five? People need alternative ways for their survival. It’s that old proverb of people learning to fish if they are hungry so they can provide for themselves.

Q. And you sell produce regularly at markets locally?

A. We try to sell some produce at market to make enough to cover our expenses. But at the lowest possible prices. We don’t sell at all to retail outlets or wholesalers. We market everything at small farmers markets and occasionally to a small retail store in the area. We try to reduce the distance between the consumer and the farmer. The strongest economy is when you can market everything within the eyesight of the steeple of the church in your village! Then you don’t need irradiation plants and all this export business.

Q. You have a wonderful toilet system here. What have you called it?

A. We call it the Banco Ambrosiana – the Bank of Rome, deposits only. It’s just a little jest we have. When people ask me what I do, I say that I’m a banker. In the organic sense one of the best things you can do is produce organic compost. We use the compost from the toilet on long term fruit trees. We don’t use it on vegetable crops. Its another model of recycling instead of just producing waste for waste’s sake.

Q What major crops of fruit do you have?

A. We probably have 60 or 70 different crops of fruit trees. The basic things we have all year are the papayas, bananas, avocados, pineapples, other seasonal crops as well. We try to stay with traditional crops here in Hawaii – taros, sweet potatoes, beans, corn, greens, on 22 acres. About 14 acres is forest and we are planning to diversify there. We grow tropical hardwood trees and native trees. And in about 8 acres of deep dirt land is where we grow our vegetables. We’re a community service farm sharing food and farm plantings freely with between 50 – 150 per month. We have hardwood forest tree plantings for future generations. We have our farm pond for fish cultivation and irrigation. We are building a proto-type, low-cost self-help bamboo cabin. We have honeybee hives, continued tank aquaculture and fruit and vegetable plantings.

Q. But you also engage from here in justice struggles. What are some and can you tell us a bit about how you sustain your spiritual life so that you can continue over so many years in these matters?

A. We continue to stand against dropping bombs and building more prisons as solutions for anything. We oppose genetically engineered and irradiated food. Instead of trying to compete in the global economy, we are relearning to think and act small in a Hawaiian village sovereign economy. We stand in support of Hawaiian sovereignty and Hawaiian justice concerns such as the over development and disrespect of Mauna Kea’s sacred summit. The farm here is the base for a lot of different organisations. The Big Island Nuclear Free Zone, Rainforest Action Group, our weekly bible study. Every Tuesday night this small group, sometimes a dozen or more, come together for reflection. That’s an important part of our strength.

Q. How does that group work?

A. We pick one of the lectionary readings for the upcoming Sunday. We read it aloud, and the question we ask is ‘what jumps out at us?’ Then we have some discussion about that. Then we read it again, and ask the question ‘what experience in our own lives seems to relate to this ?’ And then we go around the group for comment. Then a third reading is followed by ‘what is God calling us to do?’ That’s a move from reflection to action. Quite a diverse group of people come to that and we find it very helpful. It is like a settling in the middle of the week. Whatever experiences people are having will get tied into that Scripture somehow.

Q. Do you consider the Peter Maurin vision is as valid now as it was in the 1940s?

A. I think it is even more important today when you look at the abuse of the planet from every aspect. From the violence that we do through the poisoning of agri-business through to the war economy. The planet is under stress. I think that this tie to the land where workers become scholars and scholars become workers is relearning the basic organic connections of life. Integrity of creation, the Pope would call it. We really need to humble ourselves and recognise we are totally out of touch. This dimension of Catholic Worker understanding is crucial to the survival of the planet.

Jim Albertini was interviewed in Kurtistown, HI, 8 September 1999 by Jim Consedine.

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