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  • Writer's pictureBen Koponen

Protests in Hawai'i over Thirty Meter Telescope

Updated: Nov 17, 2021

The division between the interests of indigenous peoples, and corporate actors has plagued many corporatist governments. Such a division has manifested itself on the Big Island of Hawai’i between local hawaiians and the International Observatory organisation over whether a Thirty Meter Telescope should be built on Mauna Kea. If built, it would be the largest telescope in the world, peering into space before the big bang. However, Mauna Kea is also one of the most sacred locations for locals. For years, locals have protested. But what have these protests amounted to? Will the telescope be built? And what is the relationship between Hawai’i and astronomy in general?

Halfway around the world on a small island in the South Pacific ocean, a group of indegenous peoples are fighting for their cultural heritage. Ever since plans to build a Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on top of Mauna Kea (a dormant volcano located on the Big Island of Hawaii) protests against--and political negotiations for-- advancing the telescope have ensued. However, who are the actors involved? Why is Mauna Kea so important to both parties? What are the broader political implications?

Ever since the first telescope was built on Mauna Kea, it has become a global leader in astronomical research. The touristic tropical island supports such a revered astronomy community for two primary reasons. Firstly, the Big Island and Mauna Kea has one of the lowest levels of light pollution in the world (excluding inaccessible regions). Secondly, the dormant volcano towers 13,796 ft (4,207m) above sea level (The Guardian), making it only 600m shorter than Mont Blanc in France (4,809m). So yes, it’s tall, and the astronomy community has capitalized on such a prime location.

About 12 telescopes are currently located on top of Mauna Kea, and they have yielded some remarkable images. However, science doesn’t settle. The International Observatory has selected Mauna Kea as a location for a Thirty Meter Telescope which, if built, would be the largest in the world. Scientists anticipate that the TMT would capture images that look back to the beginning of the universe” (The Guardian), and possibly observe whether there is life outside of our solar system (sciencemag). But keep in mind, Mauna Kea is more than a scientific hotspot, it is also a deeply spiritual and sacred location of Hawaiian culture.

Hawai’i is not the typical U.S. state. The small volcanic island(s) had been inhabited for centuries by the ancient Hawaiians who had their own language, mythologies, and social structure (monarchy).

This all changed when it became a state on August 21st, 1959. The Hawaiian language was forbidden from schools, the monarchy was dismantled, and the culture was slipping out of the hands of island natives--until the 1970’s (when Hula, and Hawaiian became more accessible to the public). Mauna Kea has been--and still is--a sacred cultural landmark in the Hawaiian culture. In the local mythology, Mauna Kea is considered home to Wakea ( the god of the sky) who joined forces with Papahanaumoku (the earth goddess). In other words, it is a link between heaven (the divine masculine) and earth (the divine feminine) which “belongs to the gods” (protest leader Noe Noe Wilson SCIENCE). The locals fear that building a TMT would desecrate the ecology of one of the few--and vital--cultural landmarks. So, what are they doing about it?

The response against the TMT has primarily flowed from grassroots mobilizations. Peaceful protests began on October 7, 2014 when activists (also known as kia’i) set up a camp on Mauna Kea to restrict construction crews from accessing the summit. Most of the days involve hula dancing, chanting, cultural ceremonies, cultural awareness classes (often led by students), and standing as a blockade (The Guardian, SCIENCE). Since 2014 at least 69 blockaders have been arrested ( 31 in April 2015, and 38 in July 2019) when kia’i (protectors) chained themselves to a cattle gate. Most of these 38 individuals arrested happened to be kupuna (respected elders). Contrary to the intentions of law enforcement this increased the awareness and support for the movement. Nevertheless David Ige (Hawaii’s governor), officials from the University of Hawai’i (which will lease the land to TMT officials for $1 a year), project investors (Cal Tech, University of California, Japan, China, India, and Canada), and International Observatory (IO) officials want to move forward. After all, there is an economic incentive.

The TMT, which could allow astronomers to peer back 13 billion years in time (briefly after the Big Bang) is projected to open up 300 union construction jobs during its construction phase and 140 full-time personnel when operational. These jobs may support Hawaii’s economy after recent volcanic eruptions and waning tourism. However, Hawai’i has the lowest unemployment rate in the United States (2.1%) and faces more issues with too many job vacancies ( CBS Sacramento). That said, David Ige (Hawaii's governor) is persisting with the TMT in a safe manner for all parties involved. His strategy; to increase the amount of time possible for construction to start, which would (hypothetically) force protestors to “block the road until september 2021” (The Guardian).

The situation has clearly placed governor Ige in a tight conundrum between scientific advancement and retaining cultural heritage. In 2018, the Hawaii Supreme Court granted the project with a valid permit for construction. But this decision may have been made prematurely, considering that IO officials selected La Palma in the Canary Islands (tmtlapalma) as an alternate (yet scientifically inferior) location in 2016.

Currently, a cloud of uncertainty is still hanging over the Big Island as to whether or not organizers can or will follow through with construction.

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