Mark Zuckerberg will drop his lawsuits against hundreds of Hawaiians to force the sale of small tracts of land within his Kauai estate, the Facebook CEO announced today in an op-ed in Kauai’s newspaper, the Garden Island.
“Upon reflection, I regret that I did not take the time to fully understand the quiet title process and its history before we moved ahead,” Zuckerberg wrote. “Now that I understand the issues better, it’s clear we made a mistake.”
The billionaire had faced major backlash from Hawaiians since he filed eight “quiet title” lawsuits on 30 December. Quiet title suits seek to clarify the ownership of plots of land, which can be very complicated in Hawaii, and can result in owners being forced to sell at auction.
The process is controversial in Hawaii, where many view it as a tool of dispossession first employed by sugar barons, but later adopted by the wealthy malihini (newcomers) seeking vacation homes.
The parcels at stake in the Zuckerberg case were kuleana – land granted to native Hawaiians in the 1850s after land was privatized for the first time in Hawaii – contained within the boundaries of his 700-acre, $100m estate.
Kuleana lands are especially important, law professor Kapua Sproat explained to the Guardian, because native Hawaiians view land as an “ancestor” or family member, rather than as a possession.
“It’s a grandparent,” she said. “You just don’t sell your grandmother.”
Sproat criticized Zuckerberg’s lawsuits as “the face of neocolonialism”, and many Hawaiians seemed to agree. State representative Kaniela Ing of Maui announced legislation to reform the quiet title process. Some neighbors planned to march on Zuckerberg’s property in protest on Saturday, according to Business Insider.
After the Honolulu Star-Advertiser first reported on the lawsuits, Zuckerberg took to his own Facebook page to defend himself, calling the media coverage “misleading”. Zuckerberg attempted to cast the suits as a boon for the defendants, since they might “receive money for something they never even knew they had”.
But some of the defendants told the Garden Island that they would never sell their shares because of the importance of having a connection to their ancestral lands.
Zuckerberg seems to have understood the issue now.
“We understand that for native Hawaiians, kuleana are sacred and the quiet title process can be difficult,” he wrote. “We want to make this right, talk with the community, and find a better approach.”
The CEO promised to hold discussion with “community leaders” representing native Hawaiians and environmentalists, and added that he is “looking for more ways to support the community as neighbors”.
Zuckerberg is off to a rough start with his neighbors. In addition to the lawsuits, many residents of Kauai continue to resent the mile-long wall he built along one border of his property.
Mason Chock, a Kauai council member, told the Guardian last week that Zuckerberg’s actions were of a piece with his general isolation from the island community.
“I have not seen him reach out to the community in any way, shape or form.”
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