Protests Mount Over New Telescope Planned On Culturally Significant Hawaiian Site

July 23, 2019 by Elin Johnson

Hawaii’s Lieutenant governor said Monday that talks to end a protest over the construction of a 14th observatory atop a sacred Hawaiian mountain are at an impasse, and he’s not sure a compromise will ever be reached.

Lt. Governor Josh Green offered that grim assessment after four hours of talks with Native Hawaiian elders at the protest site.

Native Hawaiian protesters have been blocking a road leading to the summit of Mauna Kea since last week to stop the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope. In addition to holding up the project, the protest has effectively shut down the 13 other observatories on the mountain.

Green suggested the protest shows it’s time for a “grand reconciliation” with Hawaii’s “host culture.”

Although he said he had no definitive plan for carrying that out, he said among the things the state should consider is pushing for federal recognition of Native Hawaiians and for the state Department of Hawaiian Homelands to make more land available for native housing.

Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii that is highly sacred to Native Hawaiians, and is an integral part of Hawaiian traditions. 

They believe the mountain is where the heavens meet the earth, is the genesis of their people, and where they can ascend to heaven. Mauna Kea for them is a temple where they bury their most revered ancestors. 

But the same attributes the Native Hawaiians believe make the mountain sacred also make it ideal for astronomy.

The Thirty Meter Telescope project was proposed 10 years ago and has been delayed ever since by peaceful protests and legal challenges. Earlier this month the Hawaiian Supreme Court ruled the permits for the project were valid and construction of the observatory could begin on July 15. That’s when the protestors descended on the site.

“TMT has been very patient. We worked very long and very hard to comply with all laws and regulations. We’ve also worked long and hard with the community and to develop understanding and respect for the culture,” said Ed Stone, the executive director of the TMT, in a statement.

The Thirty Meter Telescope is named so for the thirty-meter primary mirror, and is being built by Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope. It costs $1.4 billion and would be the world’s most advanced telescope.

Scott Ishikawa, a spokesperson for the TMT project, said the developers have no intention to halt or alter the plans for the telescope as Mauna Kea is still the preferred site for construction.

Protest leaders estimate 2,000 people have gathered to block the roads up to the construction site. Blockades and camps have been built on the access road up to the mountain.

Last week Hawaii Governor David Ige signed an emergency proclamation giving law enforcement more authority to deal with the situation. That led to the arrest of more than 30 protestors, but only seemed to worsen the situation.

Representative Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, who is currently running for president, urged the governor to reconsider his hard line stance on the protest and to delay construction of the new telescope until old and languishing observatories on the mountain are removed or recommissioned.

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