On June 22, 2019, Governor David Ige issued a notice allowing construction to proceed for the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), following the defeat of a legal challenge to its construction in the Hawaiian Supreme Court. Construction was set to begin this week, but protesters non-violently blocked access to the roads, preventing equipment from going up the mountain of Mauna Kea.
In response, 33 of the protesters have been arrested, and the governor has issued an emergency proclamation enabling law enforcement to have more flexibility to protecting construction workers, including closing roads and other activities. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs, a state agency charged with representing the concerns of native Hawaiians, has condemned the arrests.
In 2015, Forbes explored the controversy around building this new telescope on Mauna Kea. Here are some highlights from that reporting which can be helpful for understanding why this controversy is still raging.
Building Telescopes On Mauna Kea Has Always Been Controversial
But considering there are 13 telescopes on the slopes of Mauna Kea, an outsider looking in might wonder: What’s the controversy?
Protests regarding the construction of telescopes on Mauna Kea aren’t new. There has been protest and opposition to the construction of every telescope on the island since the first one was built in 1964. There are a number of reasons for this opposition, including concerns about environmental damage, concerns about the use of the land by the observatories essentially rent-free, and most importantly, Mauna Kea’s status as a sacred site to the indigenous Hawaiian people.
The Telescope Has Wide Business Support, But Protesters Have Both Economic And Non-Economic Concerns
“We have a lot of support – almost unanimous – from the business community,” [TMT community affairs manager Sandra] Dawson said. “Astronomy puts a lot into the local economy. It’s not just that. Hawaii island is not Oahu – it doesn’t have high tech business. So the business community sees TMT as a great kickstarter for high tech business on the island.”
In response to the controversy, the TMT has also written a website which they believe addresses many of the concerns about the project.
For Kealoha Pisciotta, the [then] president of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, which opposes building the telescope, the issues go beyond the ones which the TMT project has presented.
“This is not only an ecologically sensitive area,” she told me. For Hawaiians, it’s where our origin story begins. It’s a place where significant ancestors are buried, so it’s a burial ground. It’s the abode of the gods and goddesses, and you have to go there with strong reverence.”
That said, she rejects the idea that the economic plans being offered by the TMT project are as valuable as its leaders claim. Her group argues that the the law requires projects to pay fair market lease value for the land they use. There’s an exemption in the law for the University of Hawaii, which manages the telescopes on the mountain, but Pisciotta believes that shouldn’t apply to the governments of China, Canada, Japan and others who are part of the project.
“So while TMT is proffering this money, it isn’t in compliance with the law,” she said. “You can’t pay rent on whatever you want. Fair market is definitely more than a million.”
Not All Native Hawaiians Oppose The Telescope
One another side of the issue is astronomer Dr. Paul Coleman at the University of Hawaii. Coleman is himself a native Hawaiian, but he wholeheartedly supports the endeavor and believes the Thirty Meter Telescope project is of immense importance to the state’s future.
“I understand the need for cultural sensitivity to special places and the Old Culture,” he said. “But in the Old Culture there were ways to get around restrictive rules. I don’t see where there’s a downside since I believe the TMT project guys have been culturally respectful. They’ve been open to the process for seven years. To have this [the protests] thrown in at last little second is a very disheartening thing.”