Earlier this month, The Guardian reported on Mark Zuckerberg’s latest attempt to purchase protected Hawaiian land parcels within his surrounding $100 million Kauai estate. Since late 2016, the billionaire Facebook CEO has been locked in a legal battle with local Hawaiian residents who claim ownership of what they believe to be native ancestral lands. One of the Hawaiian family members appears to have bought the parcels at auction on behalf of Mr. Zuckerberg, despite other members crying foul play.
Land ownership has long been a point of contention in Hawaii. Prior to 1850, Hawaiian natives cultivated the land collectively and lived wherever they pleased. But in 1850, King Kamehameha III proposed a series of laws that allowed natives and non-natives alike to claim title over previously communal land. Kamehameha’s goal was to attract the foreign capital that the budding island economy required, but as a result, many native Hawaiians were pushed out of their ancestral homes. Ultimately, only about 1% of Hawaiian land was granted to indigenous people.
The parcels, known as kuleana, within Mr. Zuckerberg’s estate were purchased in 1882 by a Portuguese immigrant named Manuel Rapozo. When he died intestate in 1928, the land was passed on to his seven children. Kuleana are granted unique access rights, so anyone living on the land within Mr. Zuckerberg’s estate is permitted to move freely on his surrounding property. Since 2016, the billionaire has tried to purchase those kuleana for himself. Some locals, like Kapua Sproat, a Law Professor at the University of Hawaii, believe Mr. Zuckerberg is the “face of neocolonialism.” Like generations of foreigners before him, they argue, the CEO is alienating natives from their ancestral homes. Others believe Mr. Zuckerberg is making the best of a bad situation. If he hadn’t bought the 700-acre property, it may have been converted into a sprawling residential development. Furthermore, the billionaire is making an effort to identify the hundreds of owners of the kuleana land so that they can all be compensated. To this end, he filed a series of quiet title claims in late 2016. Quiet title suits are meant to establish the title rights to a property before a judge. Often, they are used when the ownership of a property is unclear or when there are numerous claimants to the title. If two or more co-owners disagree, the property in question can be put up for auction.
In an apparent effort to avoid public backlash, Mr. Zuckerberg enlisted Carlos Andrade to do his bidding for him. Mr. Andrade, a native Hawaiian and part-owner of the disputed kuleana, made a bid for the four parcels in March. Wayne Rapozo, the leader of a group of family members opposed to the sale, successfully outbid Mr. Andrade. But earlier this month, Mr. Andrade reopened the bidding and won the title to all four parcels for over $2 million. Mr. Rapozo, a corporate attorney, suspects Mr. Zuckerberg fronted Mr. Andrade the money to buy the properties, and he expects Mr. Andrade to now sell the properties back to his accomplice.
The details of the estate and the auction are beyond the scope of this blog, and the case obviously involves Hawaiian law, so it doesn’t tell us much about how a similar case might unfold in a California probate court. But the outcome is sad, and family relationships have been shattered, an all too common occurrence in California trust and estate litigation.