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Counting ulu from space

Mervin Tano, Kapiolani Community College KIKSAPA NASA TCU-ELO program intern, Haskell Native American University, Lawrence Kansas.  [courtesy photo]
“It’s out of this world thinking…”
Source: Pacific Business Center Program PRBI media release

Mervin Tano, a native Hawaiian student from Kapiolani Community College, was accepted by the 2017 NASA Summer Research Experience for Tribal College Undergraduates. As interns to the NASA funded project, students undergo intensive training in climate science, geospatial applications for science research, and are required to develop and complete a research project to fulfill their program requirements.

 Merv’s current project will take a University of Hawaii College of Business Administration 2014 national award winning project by the Pacific Business Center Program (PBCP), titled the ‘Pacific Regional Breadfruit Initiative’ (PRBI), to a higher level; like in satellite.

This PRBI project is based on the seminal work of Dr. Diane Ragone, Director of the Breadfruit Institute, National Tropical Botanical Garden in Kauai.

The NASA Experiential Learning Opportunity (TCU-ELO) program is hosted at Haskell Native American University, Lawrence, Kansas ( 

The Pacific Business Center Program PRBI points to significant agricultural and economic development opportunities in Hawai’i and greater Oceania.

The Pacific Regional Breadfruit Initiative is funded by the U.S. Department of the Interior Office of Insular Affairs (OIA) and the 2014 national award winning project through the University Economic Development Association (UEDA) of U.S. Colleges and Universities.

The project had a particular challenge regarding counting or obtaining an accurate inventory of trees in Hawai’i and the U.S. Pacific Territories spread out over 3 million square miles of ocean. A total land area comparable in size to the continental United States.

The area is from Hawai’i to Saipan in the north to far west Pacific, down to Palau in the south west Pacific, through the Federated States of Micronesian and Republic of the Marshall Islands covering the mid Pacific and to American Samoa in the south Pacific.

Even local colleges and government departments of agriculture did not have accurate or updated inventories of breadfruit trees for their respective island or archipelago to formulate an estimate or projections essential for industry development and manufacturing feasibility for both local and regional economic development.

However, with Merv’s NASA project on the table, what at first was considered an insurmountable challenge, has now become an exciting opportunity to expand and utilize remote imaging technological tools to focus on breadfruit identification and differentiation from surrounding vegetation utilizing remotely sensed multiple band satellite imagery.

Merv’s project will have broader agricultural, economic, food security, climate change, rising tides and disaster preparedness applications utilizing the most current cutting edge technology brought together through Kiksapa’s partnership with NASA.

For example, Merv will be introduced to the various remote sensing techniques to determine if breadfruit can be detected using remotely sensed data at varying spatial and temporal scales.

If this proves successful, he will expand the scope of his work to conduct regional and island by island count of standing trees and general phenology analysis. Remote sensing capacities will include species identification, soils analysis, health conditions, moisture and organic content of the soils, climate conditions and sea level rise information and data to name a few.

KIKSAPA is an Environmental Science, Geospatial and Education and Institutional Planning consulting company that works extensively with Native American higher education institutions in collaboration with NASA.

It focuses on training, content expertise and skills development with a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) focus. Kiksapa also works with DHS/FEMA in assisting Federally Recognized Tribes in establishing their Hazard Mitigation Plans, their Threats and Hazards Identification Risk Assessments (THIRA), and other processes to increase resiliency in Native communities.

Kiksapa was established by Dr. Bull Bennett who was the first Native American to earn a doctorate (2005) from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. Dr. Bennett had the distinguished privilege to serve as a founding member of the National Geospatial Advisory Committee, and as a member of the National Climate Assessment Development and Advisory Committee where he served as the Co-convening Lead Author on the 3rd National Climate Assessment (2014).

Merv will be field supervised over the 2017 summer/fall project period by PRBI partners in Hawai’i to conduct satellite GIS analysis.

They include Dr. Tusi Avegalio Director of the UH Shidler College of Business Administration Pacific Business Center Program on Oahu, and two Big Island field supervisors and PRBI team members. They are Kalani Souza, leading the establishment of an international phenology association and national outreach and coordinator for the National Disaster Preparedness Training Center (NDPTC) for community resilience and food security, and Internationally acclaimed author on agroforestry and breadfruit Craig Elevitch of Agroforestry Net to pilot the project for expansion to local farmers as well as students from the region.

All three are members of the Global Breadfruit Heritage Council (GBHC) that advocates for responsible agricultural practices that are sustainable through the weave of traditional wisdom and cultural knowledge with modern science and technology. 

Where feasible, additional students, farmers and/or volunteers from Hawaii, U.S. Territories and Oceania will be recruited as active participants. 

A major goal of the project is to present the findings and KIKSAPA/NASA program at the 2017 Samoa ‘Home of the Ma’afala’ Pacific and Global Summit in Apia, Samoa in October.

“With the success of Representative Su’a Jennings dehydrator in American Samoa that has produced market ready milled flour as determined by milling and flour making Professor Jeff Gwirtz of Kansas State University, the challenge of effectively drying and milling breadfruit has been overcome. Securing an inventory of breadfruit tree’s to project and calculate supply from raw harvest to flour conversion was the next critical factor essential to pulling the essential pieces together,” Dr. Tusi said.

“Counting ulu trees from space lays another major plank in building local island economies utilizing a sustainable local agricultural product, establishing local manufacturing and creating local jobs from ground to table.”  Dr. Tusi chuckled, “It’s not out of the box thinking, it’s out of this world thinking!”