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Depression-Era Conservation Corps Rebooted in Hawaii Using Pandemic Aid Funds

About the shores of Pearl Harbour, the whine of chainsaws and the rumble of woodchippers are echoing. Crews working remove an invasive mangrove habitat from the shoreline and tidal streams, emptying into the most prominent water body in Hawaii.

Amanda Millin, a field crew boss leading a team of five, says, “Pearl Harbor is being choked out by red mangrove,”

Millin states that mangroves have a host of environmental advantages in most tropical environments, including carbon sequestering, erosion control, and biodiversity promotion.

“But here in Hawaii, mangrove is invasive, and it takes over,” she says.

Millin and her crew are among the 350 persons now being paid by a CARES Act-funded grant in Hawaii to perform this form of environmental work.

Across the country, before the deadline at the end of this month, states and cities are rushing to invest billions of dollars in federal CARES Act funds.

Old Idea

The state government in Hawaii has used some of the help funds to put back an innovation from the Great Depression-era for job growth.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt emphasized the need to eliminate unemployment, which stood approximately 25 percent nationwide, in his 1933 inaugural address. He identified millions of unemployed people facing “the grim problem of existence and an equally great number [who] toil with little return.”

FDR founded the Civilian Conservation Corps as part of his New Contract to provide the unemployed with jobs. During the Great Depression, the initiative offered work constructing trails and planting trees to about 3 million Americans.

A modern-day version of the Civilian Conservation Corps, called the Aina Corps, was established in Hawaii, which currently has one of the highest unemployment rates of any state. In the Hawaiian language, Aina is the word for land.

The Honolulu-based non-profit Kupu, which administers youth-focused conservation services, developed the idea for the Aina Corps.

Kawika Riley, Strategic Partnerships Chief for Kupu, said Aina Corps employees concentrate mainly on two areas: conservation and agriculture.

“The goal is to find displaced workers and recent graduates who’ve been affected by the COVID downturn and then match them with green economy jobs and training for as long as the CARES funding allows,” Riley explained.

The staff of Kupu Aina Corps is now paying at least $15 an hour plus healthcare. Much like FDR’s conservation corps, Riley states that the scheme offers the city with both natural and economic advantages.

He seems, however, ready to shift. Congress demanded that all CARES funds be invested before the end of the year, ensuring that several hundred members of the Aina Corps would likely soon be out of work.

“There’s no money to pay people in January,” said Sandy Ward, Malama Pu’uloa’s executive director. The organization, whose name means Pearl Harbor Treatment in Hawaiian, is coordinating the project to eradicate the mangroves.

Much of Malama Pu’uloa’s analysis was performed by volunteers before the COVID-19 pandemic. For much of 2020, with Hawaii citizens hesitant or constitutionally barred from gathering, such volunteers vanished before the start of the Aina Corps.

“We all needed people—people needed jobs. CARES money did that,” Ward said.

Ward notes that an Aina Corps work for certain families is the difference between skipping meals or not being able to afford rent.

She said of the team doing mangrove removal, “This particular crew is younger,”

“Some of them are only a little over a year out of high school. Their job prospects completely dried up.”

When CARES funding expires, the numerous non-profits participating in the scheme are searching for new income sources to retain as many jobs as they can.

Crew leader Amanda Millin is hopeful about finding more money for scholarships but feels concerned about the future is impacting everyone.

She said, “It’s definitely unsettling, and it’s a huge risk,”

“I’m constantly reminding myself that I think it will pan out and it’s worth the risk. I’m 35 years old, and I have two degrees.”

The 350 Aina Corps employees would be thrown into the toughest job market in decades without new resources.

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