For Native Hawaiian advocates, tech billionaires’ donations don’t go far enough

The fires that devastated Maui this month are reigniting calls for tech billionaires there to be better neighbors — or maybe not be neighbors at all. 

Amazon executive chair Jeff Bezos, PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, Nvidia president and CEO Jensen Huang, and Workday co-founder David Duffield all own sprawling properties on the island of Maui. Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison owns nearly all of the nearby island of Lanai that’s part of Maui County. Bezos and Ellison alone make up two of the four richest people on Earth. And those are just some of the big names on Maui. Celebrities and tech giants like Mark Zuckerberg and Marc Benioff have scooped up vast estates across other parts of Hawaii.

As they’ve used their wealth to amass huge properties, it’s become harder for Native Hawaiians and other residents to afford living on Maui. The land itself was taken from Native Hawaiians after the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893. In the aftermath of the deadliest wildfires in Hawaii’s history, residents fear another potential land grab by realtors who might capitalize on the disaster. 

“Billionaires coming to Maui, buying up large swaths of land as their, I don’t know, seventh vacation home, it’s painful for our community.”

On top of remaking a life from the ashes, many survivors are also fighting to keep the community together. Lahaina was once the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom. And as it’s rebuilt, Native Hawaiians, or Kanaka Maoli, want to ensure that their people and culture aren’t wiped off the map like thousands of its homes and buildings were during the fires. 

What tech billionaires do with their money and influence in Maui could play a part in how hard that fight could turn out to be. Their presence alone has raised problems for locals. And donations alone aren’t enough without other measures to empower residents with generational ties to the land, community leaders tell The Verge.  

“Billionaires coming to Maui, buying up large swaths of land as their, I don’t know, seventh vacation home, it’s painful for our community,” Maui County Councilmember Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, who grew up on the island of Molokai that’s part of Maui County, tells The Verge. “It underscores the stark disparity between indigenous people who want to mālama ‘āina, care for our land, and those who see Hawaii as a vacation destination.” 

The most extreme example is Larry Ellison’s mini-empire on the island of Lanai. It’s part of Maui County, although it’s not on the island affected by the fires this month. Ellison purchased 98 percent of the island for a cool $300 million back in 2012. He owns close to 90,000 acres, including most of Lanai’s commercial properties and a couple Four Seasons resorts. 

“Ellison is a modern American king — incomprehensibly wealthy and powerful,” Sophie Alexander writes in a 2022 Bloomberg Businessweek exposé on Ellison’s operations on Lanai. “Many residents both rent from him and work for him, and a provision in his residential leases states that if you’re terminated from a job with any of his companies, you can be kicked out of your home, too.”

Aerial view of Hulopoe Beach and Puu Pehe or Sweetheart Rock, Lanai Island, Hawaii.
Photo by Andre Seale / VW PICS / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg has reportedly paid around $170 million to accumulate 1,500 acres on the island of Kauai (which is not part of Maui County). In 2017, he filed lawsuits against descendants of Kuleana tenant farmers with claims to the land, using a legal maneuver called “quiet title and partition” to try to force the sale of undeveloped land. After facing backlash, Zuckerberg dropped the lawsuits and wrote, “We love Kaua`i and we want to be good members of the community for the long term,” in a letter published in the local paper The Garden Island.

“It’s almost like a second wave of colonization, which is these ultra-rich individuals, a lot of tech giants, are buying property and creating their own colonies,” says Davis Price, who is Native Hawaiian from Oʻahu and Hawaiian regional director for the Indigenous-led nonprofit NDN Collective. “When you have ultra-wealthy folks purchasing large swaths of land, not only does it often displace people, but it gives them a lot of influence in terms of how things are done in their communities, and it becomes a threat and a change to the way of life.”

A spokesperson for the Four Seasons responded to an inquiry from The Verge on behalf of the resort but didn’t answer questions about whether Ellison was taking any personal actions to support relief funds. The company has set up a fundraiser for donations to help its staff. “After all impacted employees have received support, remaining funds will be distributed to the Maui community through the Hawai’i Community Foundation’s Maui Strong Fund,” Lori Holland, senior director of public relations and communications for Four Seasons Resorts Lanai, wrote in an email.

Jensen Huang and his wife “have already donated significantly to local relief efforts,” according to Nvidia spokesperson Bob Sherbin. Sherbin didn’t share how much they’ve donated, saying in an email that “As it becomes clear how they can best help more, they will do so.” Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, announced that they had donated to the Maui Strong Fund on Facebook on August 11th without saying how much. Spokespeople for Workday, where Duffield is CEO Emeritus, and for the Thiel Foundation didn’t respond to inquiries from The Verge. Neither did the press contact for the Bezos Earth Fund.

Oprah Winfrey owns an estate on Maui, seen here on March 16th, 2004, in Kula, Hawaii. Winfrey has pledged to make a “major donation” to fire relief efforts.
Photo by Erik Aeder / Getty Images

Bezos became the wealthiest homeowner on Maui in 2021 when he reportedly acquired a 14-acre estate for $78 million. “The property sits on what might be the only sand remaining on the southern coastline” and includes 10 archaeological sites, Maui Times reports

Bezos and partner Lauren Sanchez announced on Instagram that they would create a $100 million fund “to help Maui get back on its feet.” But there are scarce details yet on how that money will be spent and who gets to sit at the decision-making table. “It’s a commitment in the future. Who’s going to actually track that to make sure that happens? And that it actually goes to the people who need that help the most?” Rawlins-Fernandez says. 

Ultra-wealthy philanthropists need to prioritize giving to Native Hawaiian communities facing the greatest risk of displacement, Price says. “It is their presence, their spirit that makes Hawaii so unique. And it is on the backs of the native people that so much wealth and opportunity has been created in Hawaii,” he says. ”Whether it be their displacement and dispossession of land that has made many, many people rich, or whether it’s the workforce and labor force that they contributed to, or whether it’s the culture that is the bedrock of the tourism industry that’s sold to the world.” 

Price’s organization, NDN Collective, received $12 million in 2020 from the Bezos Earth Fund in 2020. Before acquiring his property on Maui, Bezos reportedly also doled out money to several local organizations. But donations aren’t the only way billionaires can support locals. And some say it isn’t enough to make up for the outsize impact they have when they stake a claim on land in Hawaii.

“It is on the backs of the native people that so much wealth and opportunity has been created in Hawaii.”

Night after night — after grueling days of distributing food and supplies and checking in on loved ones — community leaders still meet to think about what comes next. They’ve discussed a temporary moratorium on the sales of residential land parcels, something Governor Josh Green and State Attorney General Anne Lopez say they’re looking into for Lahaina

Community land trusts are another topic that comes up. People who can’t afford to rebuild homes lost in the fire might decide that they have to sell their land. And some people just might not want to stay after the disaster. That’s where wealthy realtors and developers have an opportunity to swoop in and potentially transform working-class neighborhoods and Native Hawaiian communities into new playgrounds for the rich. A community land trust, usually a nonprofit organization that manages land for the benefit of the broader community, could be an alternative buyer. But instead of turning around and selling the land to the highest bidder, the trust would keep the land for whatever uses local stakeholders see fit. 

These are still early conversations, but Hawaii’s wealthiest property owners could potentially donate land or cash to community land trusts. Bezos donated “an unspecified amount” to Hawaii Land Trust in 2021 to preserve and restore lands on Hawaii. In some cases, the organization purchases land to preserve it and keep it accessible to the public. They also work with property owners who want to donate land or enter into a conservation easement, a voluntary legal agreement that limits what kinds of development are allowed on the land.

For some, the best billionaires can do is to give their land back to the people. “The world’s ultra-wealthy, from Jeff Bezos to Oprah Winfrey, promising monetary donations to support Maui while owning hundreds and thousands of acres on-island, should really put their money where their mouth is by giving land back to Native Hawaiians and local communities,” Uahikea Maile, a Kanaka Maoli activist from Oahu and an assistant professor in Indigenous Politics in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto, said in an email to The Verge.

Scrub grass on the island of Lanai, Maui, Hawaii, 2016. Plantation owners left behind flammable, invasive grasses that have heightened fire risk across Hawaii.
Photo by Smith Collection / Gado / Getty Images

After all, it was outsiders’ accumulation of wealth on the islands that led to the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom and made Hawaii more vulnerable to wildfires. The US annexed the islands in 1898 after American plantation owners in Hawaii sought to evade import taxes. When Hawaii’s plantation economy eventually collapsed, they left behind large tracts of land that had been cleared of its local greenery. Invasive grasses took hold, transforming the landscape from one that rarely burned to one that’s easily ignitable. 

Tourism replaced agriculture as the economic engine of Hawaii. But it has also come with costs to Kanaka Maoli vying for housing with billionaires buying vacation properties. The median price of a home on Maui is $1 million. And there’s a fight heating up over water that’s historically been diverted to plantations and luxury developments. 

“Anyone looking can immediately see the two Hawaiis that exist: the Hawaii for the ultra-wealthy and the Hawaii for, I guess, the rest of us,” Councilmember Rawlins-Fernandez says.

Rebuilding on burn scars could open up new wounds, depending on how it plays out.  

“The idea of cheaply made souvenirs and trinkets that say ‘I love Lahaina’ just being sold on the same parcel where family members died — I’m trying to find the word for how profoundly painful that would be for our community,” she says.

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