“How do you enforce law and order on a private island?” I asked Bruce, our guide. I was referring to the fact that the Hawaiian resort island of Lana’i has a population of 3,000 while owned by Oracle founder and chairman Larry Ellison. Bruce didn’t need long to respond: “If you have a dispute, you talk to the person with whom you have the grievance.” What a concept! Litigation, America’s favorite pastime, doesn’t seem to play a major role on Hawaii’s 6th largest populated island.
Perhaps it is idealistic to assume that all conflicts can be resolved over a cup of coffee, but I understood the message Bruce wanted to convey: we live in a small community and people here tend to work things out among themselves. They rarely need intervention by the police or the courts.
It has not always been this peaceful on Lana’i. In fact, the soil on this beautiful island is soaked by the blood of the Hawaiian people. In the late 18th century, Hawaii’s King Kamehameha-I killed all of the island’s 6,000 inhabitants when they resisted his attempts to unify all of the Hawaiian Islands under his rule. While he is revered by the Hawaiian people, the brutality of Kamehameha’s conquest is often overlooked. With the help of European canons and muskets, his warriors slaughtered the population of Lana’i and set the richly forested island on fire, destroying all plant, animal and human life.
The king’s attack on Lana’i altered the island forever. With the forests gone, the landscape on the island turned arid as the rains stopped and water became scarce. When meagre vegetation returned, Mormon missionaries settled on Lana’i. They tried to raise livestock in the 1870s, but thousands of goats and sheep eventually grazed all of the young trees and plants right to the ground. The 360 sqkm (140 sqmi) island could not sustain a livestock industry. In 1922 James Dole, the president of the Dole Food Company, bought the island and established the world’s largest pineapple plantation on Lana’i. Eventually, pineapple production became unprofitable and Castle & Cooke, then owner of 98% of Lana’i (the state owns the remaining 2%), moved the island’s economy away from agriculture towards tourism.
When Ellison purchased Castle & Cooke’s share of Lana’i for roughly US $ 500 million in 2012, he also took control of two Four Seasons Hotels on the island– one located close to beautiful Manele Bay, the other near Lana’i City on the cool slopes of the island’s extinguished volcano. Both hotels have been or are in the process of being totally renovated and converted into what will arguably become the most exclusive and luxurious Four Seasons Hotels in the world. The prices for accommodation range from US $1,000 per night for a room at the low end of the spectrum to US $ 21,000 per night for a three-bedroom suite. Connected to Lahaina on the island of Maui by a 45-minute ride on a passenger ferry and weekly barge service, Lana’i is open to the general public, but its exclusive hotels have become a playground for the ultra-wealthy.
The impact Ellison’s ownership of Lana’i has had on the island cannot be overstated. Not only did he make sure that the unemployed plantation workers found work in the resort hotels, the island’s three golf courses and other tourist related businesses, he also gave all of the private homes and public buildings in Lana’i City a new paint job, restored the island’s dilapidated infra structure and built a state-of-the-art movie theatre. Eventually, Ellison wants to achieve a totally self-sustained community which derives its power entirely from renewable sources and its food from sustainable agriculture.
The trees are returning to Lana’i, too. During recent years the island’s hills, road sides and mountain ridges have been partly re-forested with Cook pines (Araucaria columnaris). The intention is to allow the trees to capture moisture from the ocean mist and causing water droplets to enter the soil. Hopefully, over time, this will restore the island’s depleted water table.
Born in 1944, Allison is getting on in years. Perhaps one day in the not too distant future, Lana’i will once again experience the kind of climate the island has had before it was destroyed by fire and abused by greed and ignorance. Larry Allison, however, will not be around to see these changes, but with the enormous financial resources at his disposal (his net worth is $43.2 billion in 2016) and his exciting vision for the future of this small island, he is setting an example for others to follow. Eventually leaving behind a legacy of a restored landscape, prosperity for an entire community and a model for a sustainable economy, Larry Allison will be remembered for more than the multibillion dollar software giant he founded.