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The Battle Over a Telescope on Hawaii's Sacred Mountain Is Just Beginning

Native Hawaiians are protesting the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea. Where do we go from here?

by Sarah Emerson and Becky Ferreira
Jul 26 2019, 1:56pm

Mauna Kea. Image: Julie Thurston Photography/Getty Images

Thousands of people including Native Hawaiians—Kanaka Maoli or Kanaka ʻŌiwi—gathered at Mauna Kea last week to protest the construction of an enormous, $1.4 billion telescope on Hawaiʻi’s tallest mountain.

With this telescope, astronomers could spot the universe’s oldest stars or potential signs of life on exoplanets; its giant mirror rendering images that are 12 times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope. But to many Native Hawaiians, the project has become a pinnacle of colonialism on the island.

“At Mauna Kea last week, we were a line of women standing face-to-face with police forces,” said Noelani Goodyear-Kaʻōpua, an associate professor at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and guardian of the sacred mountain.

“We were preparing for them to use pepper spray and batons,” she said. “But we knew that whatever happens on the mauna, [there is going to be] a reckoning.”

Last Wednesday, police arrested 33 kupuna (elders), some in wheelchairs, for peacefully opposing the mountain’s desecration. The arrests sparked an outcry of support for the Mauna Kea protectors, or kiaʻi, as the movement’s activists are broadly known.

From Auckland’s Aotea Square to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, people across the world are now pressuring Hawaiʻi to halt construction and listen to its native voices. On the national stage, representatives Tulsi Gabbard and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, along with Senator Elizabeth Warren, have each expressed their solidarity for Mauna Kea protectors. Hawaiʻi’s own delegates, Representative Ed Case and Senator Mazie Hirono, defended the movement as well.

“To feel that kind of love, and ultimately that’s what has been emphasized over and over— kapu aloha—it’s driven so much by a love for this land and each other that it totally overshadows what it’s against,” said Goodyear-Kaʻōpua. “It’s really what we are about.”

The state will ultimately decide the telescope’s fate, but with the project at an impasse it now faces three paths forward, and each will have some detractors. The telescope could be moved to an alternate site. The state could also halt construction and begin to heal historic rifts. Or construction could resume at the expense of Native Hawaiians.

Why is the summit of Mauna Kea so contested?

A decade ago this July, an international consortium of science institutions selected Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano, as the site for the largest optical telescope in the Northern Hemisphere, and second-largest in the world. The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), named for the length of its primary mirror, would join 13 observatories on Mauna Kea’s summit, one of the planet’s most ideal locations for skywatching.

The exceptional environment atop Mauna Kea—the dizzying altitude, the dark cloudless nights, the eerie calm—has made it a hotspot for international astronomy since the 1960s. But from the perspective of Native Hawaiians, its qualities transcend those only recently deemed useful to Western science.

To Native Hawaiians, Mauna Kea’s ecology is a manifestation of its sacred significance. Its white peaks said to be shaped by Poliʻahu, the goddess of snow, and her sisters, the goddesses of fresh water, hail, and chilling frost who dwell there. The mountain itself arose from Wākea and Papahānaumoku, the sky father and earth mother, to whom Native Hawaiians also trace their lineage according to oral histories. The name Mauna Kea, stemming from “Mauna (mountain) a Wākea,” denotes this genealogy.

Mauna Kea’s well-being, then, is intimately felt. Such is the concept of aloha 'aina, literally meaning “love of the land,” which among many things embodies that interconnectedness.

Given the focal role of Mauna Kea in Native Hawaiian life, the construction of observatories on its summit is a charged issue stemming from the islands’ painful colonial history.

Mauna Kea is part of “ceded lands” that belonged to the Hawaiian monarchy, and were taken during the overthrow of Queen Liliʻuokalani by American-backed businessmen in 1893. After Hawaiʻi’s statehood, the parcels were given to the federal government, meant to be held in trust for the benefit of Native Hawaiians. But history indicates that the islands were illegally annexed, and its land stolen—something the United States has formally acknowledged but not atoned for.

In 1959, authority over Mauna Kea was transferred to the state’s Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR). It now leases the summit to the University of Hawai’i for $1 per year, which in turn manages subleases for telescopes built there. In 2014, a peaceful protest was held at the TMT groundbreaking ceremony, attracting international attention. The opposition led to a 2015 decision by the Supreme Court of Hawai’i to invalidate the telescope’s building permit.

But after years of litigation, the project was granted a new permit in 2018, and construction was scheduled to renew on July 15, 2019. When kiaʻi assembled at the base of Mauna Kea, they were met by unarmed National Guard units, deployed by Hawai’i governor David Ige who later declared a state of emergency, for which he is being sued. Protests at Mauna Kea have drawn up to 2,000 people, and construction remains suspended.

Things now are in a holding pattern, and while Ige did not respond to a request for comment, he has repeatedly reaffirmed his commitment to finishing the project.

“I support the vision [Hawaiʻi County Mayor Harry Kim] has widely articulated for Mauna Kea as a beacon of hope and discovery for the world that brings us together rather than divides us,” Ige said in a statement on Tuesday.

The TMT board is also deliberating. Spokesperson Scott Ishikawa described the situation as “very fluid,” saying it doesn’t have a date for when construction could resume. In essence, the status of the telescope is in limbo.

"Right now, it's kind of status quo,” said Dan Dennison, a spokesperson for the BLNR, in a phone call on Tuesday. Dennison said he expects state officials to make an announcement about the status of the TMT in the coming days.

“I think the ball is in the state’s court, but we’ve seen the tides turn recently,” said Kaniela Ing, a former Hawaiʻi state representative.

If a new date is set, government officials will decide what kind of law enforcement will accompany crews to the summit. Ishikawa said the telescope’s board isn’t aware of these enforcement plans.

“We remain hopeful that we can find a way forward, with mutual respect,” he said. “As many of the protestors have said, this is not about TMT or science. Among those who remain opposed are many who see TMT as an icon for what they believe is the wrong side in the much larger political issue of Hawaiian sovereignty. We respect those who express opposition and understand the pain they feel.”

What if the telescope is built on Mauna Kea?

If the state forges ahead with the telescope's construction, it may fracture any hope of trust between Indigenous peoples and the scientific community.

“The way the project was handled has created such a huge rift, there’s no way to heal it and also build the telescope.”

This path would be an obvious disappointment for kiaʻi who have invested so much into preventing the desecration of sacred lands. But the implications of resuming construction—especially if it involves a military presence—are distressing to many scientists and STEM students as well.

Among them are Mithi Alexa de los Reyes, a graduate student in astronomy at Caltech, and Sal Wanying Fu, an incoming graduate student in astrophysics at UC Berkeley. The pair co-wrote an open letter “to denounce the criminalization of the protectors on Maunakea,” which was posted on July 17. It has been signed by more than 900 scientists and students.

In the letter, Fu and de los Reyes do not take a stance on whether the TMT should be built on Mauna Kea, and instead condemn the decision to arrest kupuna and bring in the National Guard. Such actions are a detriment to the reputation and quality of scientific work, they said, in part because they alienate marginalized peoples within the sector.

“We worry first and foremost about the long-term damage to the relationships that various scientific communities have with people who are Indigenous—not just because they are Indigenous to land that may be seen as valuable for various scientific endeavors, but also because Indigenous ways of knowing and understanding the universe are just as valuable as western science,” Fu and de los Reyes said.

There have recently been more efforts to incorporate Indigenous knowledge systems into scientific research, and the academic community has nominally embraced these values. But some scientists regard the pace of progress as glacial, with issues like Mauna Kea making them feel even more estranged within their fields.

The “ongoing conversation around TMT is influencing our feelings of belonging in astronomy, and whether or not we believe academic astronomy really values us as full human beings,” Fu and de los Reyes said.

Can the telescope be moved to a ‘Plan B’ location?

But if it were up to many people in Hawaiʻi, native and non-native, the telescope would be built somewhere else. TMT scientists considered many sites before choosing Mauna Kea, and say they are still exploring the option of moving it to La Palma in Spain’s Canary Islands.

“While our efforts are currently focused on construction of the TMT in Hawai’i, the La Palma location is still being considered if re-starting construction on Mauna Kea is not feasible,” a spokesperson for the TMT said.

The La Palma site is slightly less ideal than Mauna Kea because of its lower elevation and greater atmospheric turbulence, but still has extremely good viewing conditions and already hosts the Gran Telescopio Canarias, the largest optical observatory currently in operation.

The option of relocating the telescope has gained a foothold in the academic community. Scientists around the world—from astronomers to biologists to physicists—have opposed the project, sparking movements such as Twitter’s #ScientistsForMaunaKea hashtag.

Proponents of this option do not see the controversy over the Mauna Kea location as a zero sum game. Swapping Mauna Kea for the Canary Islands would still enable the TMT to be built at one of the best observational locations in the world, they argue.

“The way the project was handled has created such a huge rift, there’s no way to heal it and also build the telescope,” said Goodyear-Kaʻōpua, who supports moving the TMT to the Canary Islands.

The Associated Students of the University of Hawaiʻi, an undergraduate student government, share that sentiment and issued a resolution in 2014 saying the cultural and environmental impacts of the telescope on Mauna Kea outweigh its benefits.

The depiction of this struggle “as a clash between out-of-date spirituality and rigorous, modern science” is a false dichotomy, wrote scholars Keolu Fox and Chanda Prescod-Weinstein in the Nation. The islands have long been a laboratory for scientific inquiry, but colonial methods have devalued these forms of knowledge.

“It’s not about science versus culture,” said Kamana Beamer, an associate professor at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. “It’s about mismanagement and saving some of the few pristine areas we have.”

Can construction be halted to make way for a Native Hawaiian vision?

On July 18, Hawai’i State Senator Kai Kahele suggested implementing a 60-day moratorium on construction of the telescope on Mauna Kea.

“It’s time for a cooling off period,” Kahele told the Hawai’i Tribune-Herald. “I think it’s time to de-escalate this situation. I think it’s time for ho‘oponopono (mediation and conciliation). I think it’s time to have meaningful conversations for the future of Mauna Kea.”

In the event of a moratorium, Ing said he hopes that resumed construction could be contained within the existing footprint of Mauna Kea’s observatories. That would mean decommissioning older telescopes and repurposing their foundations so that new soil is not disturbed. While five of these telescopes are slated to be shut down by 2033, nothing requires this to happen before the TMT’s groundbreaking.

For many Native Hawaiians, these terms were wholly unacceptable and would do little to rectify decades of poor stewardship on Mauna Kea’s slopes. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) sued the state and the University of Hawaiʻi in 2017 for “longstanding and well-documented mismanagement” of the mountain, but the problems started long before then.

In 1996, an entomologist found that telescope construction on Mauna Kea had wrecked the habitat of a tiny, peculiar insect with antifreeze for blood: the Weiku bug that is unique to the summit. Workers had cut into a crater wall where the insect resided, causing untold destruction to the rare species. The University of Hawaiʻi eventually apologized and funded a study of the arthropod, but “efforts to gather information [...] came after damage had already been done,” a 1998 state audit found.

The TMT’s construction risks even more destruction and environmental degradation. In 2010, an environmental impact statement conducted by the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo predicted “a potential for accidents” during the TMTs’ construction, including fires and the spilling of hazardous waste. An official TMT document warned that dust and greenhouse gas emissions from human activity may impact “cultural, botanical, wildlife, and astronomical resources” on the mountain. Some environmentalists also worry that shifts to Mauna Kea’s climate may accelerate the decline of snowmelt there, Grist reported.

Native Hawaiians say they have long struggled to get telescope operators to recognize them when it comes to Mauna Kea. Authorities such as OHA have proposed guidelines for consulting with “knowledgeable practitioners and ‘ohana with lineal ties and ongoing, living practices associated [with] Mauna Kea lands.” In other words, people who speak for the mauna.

But for astronomy to do right by them, it will take more than just symbolic outreach like bestowing celestial bodies with Hawaiian names.

“There’s a certain fatigue that the Native Hawaiian community has about outreach,” Ing said. “You talk to a few consultants that will be sympathetic, incorporate names and stories, do a blessing and cut some ti leaf when you groundbreak, and all is good. But I think that era is coming to a close.”

“We’re not looking to bless other people’s projects anymore,” agreed Beamer. “We want significant leadership in designing and crafting our vision for the future of Mauna Kea and Hawaiʻi for that matter.”

Some want the university to invest in reforestation. Telescopes have damaged the mountain’s summit, but ranching and military have also left their mark on its fragile ecosystems.

The state could also grant Mauna Kea personhood, bestowing it “the legal rights of people to be healthy and protected,” Goodyear-Kaʻōpua said. This is already occurring in Aotearoa (New Zealand) where lands and rivers, such as Mount Taranaki, have been deemed “legal persons,” recognizing these places as Māori ancestors.

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The ongoing battle for Mauna Kea eclipses the field of astronomy. It confronts more than 125 years of American imperialism in Hawaiʻi, interrogates false paradigms about science for all humankind, and demands a future that is just.

But at the root of everything is a devastatingly fundamental question: How can human progress occur on stolen lands?

“What we’re experiencing is the tipping point of justice for Hawaiians in Hawaiʻi,” Beamer said. “It began with some courageous truth speakers, and the truth has galvanized a movement that we’ve never seen in Hawaiʻi since we were an independent country.”