Why Native Hawaiians are protesting the construction of a Thirty Meter Telescope

Since July 15th, news outlets around the world have covered the ongoing protests of around 1,000 Native Hawaiians at mount Mauna Kea, stressing the indigenous claims to the mountain and the planned construction of a 30 meter telescope that is not in line with these claims.

The protests for the mountain have been going on for many years since the initial plans for the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) were drawn. On June 22nd of this year Hawaiian governor David Ige issued a notice allowing the construction of the project. This issue followed the defeat of a legal challenge that began in 2015, but the indigenous struggle to protect Mauna Kea dates back as far as 1964 when the first (smaller) telescopes were erected. The building of this TMT was set to commence last Monday, but the road was non-violently blocked by protestors, preventing construction equipment from being transported up the mountain. In response, 33 protestors have since been arrested, amongst which 20 elders.

Consequently, many have responded to the protests online with bewilderment as to why the natives are willing to put their physical safety on the line for such a seemingly harmless project. Surely the construction of this Thirty Meter Telescope would be an amazing opportunity for astronomers to study our galaxy for many billions of years into the past. However exciting as this might sound, the community of native Hawaiians protesting the project have expressed that it’s not the scientific nature which they are actively protesting, it’s the grounds on which its built and the environmental challenges this will pose.

First of all, mount Mauna Kea is by constitutional law owned by the indigenous people of Hawaii, so any activity on this land has to be decided by the rightful and sovereign owners and any breach of the treaties are in opposition with their land rights. Furthermore, this 1,4 billion dollar project isn’t only being built for science or enthusiastic astronomers, the community affairs manager of the TMT has announced that this telescope is intended to propel high tech business on the island. The telescope is therefor hoped to bring a lot of money into the local economy, which would be the kickstarter to many more developments in the area around Mauna Kea.

Maybe this is why support for the protesting community at Mauna Kea is also coming from a surprising, but maybe not so surprising, group of allies. Last Wednesday, a group of 200 astrophysicists signed up an open letter to support the Native Hawaiians by denouncing the construction of the telescope. Most importantly, the letter highlights the complicated history of the scientific community using science as an excuse to colonize indigenous lands, of which these current developments are yet again a perpetuation. What it comes down to, is that “we have an ethical duty to put the rights of people ahead of our science. Otherwise, our science is unethical.” It’s not that the opponents of the telescope are against science, it’s that this is their ancestral land.

Mauna Kea is a very important site for indigenous Hawaiians, as an ancient burial ground for significant ancestors. It’s also said to be the birth place to all native Hawaiians and where their origin story begins. The people of ancient times say that the birth of the Hawaiian archipelago was from the joining of Wakae and Papa. In a 1912 edition of the local newspaper ‘Ke Au Hou‘ Native Hawaiian businessman, religious leader and politician John H. Wise discusses a genealogical chant. One line says, “Hanau ka mauna, he keiki mauna na Wakea,” translated: The mountain is born, a child from Wākea. The beautiful poetry references the legendary birth of the mountain from the mating of Wākea and Papa;

“Long, long ago, when the world was new, Wākea, the Sky Father, looked down and saw the beauty of Papa, the Earth Mother. Her ocean garment flowed about her body, moving gracefully, and the bioluminescence glimmered like the stars above in Wākea’s kīhei of night. From this love was born mountains which rose high above Papa’s waves, touching the face of their father. He placed beautiful lei of clouds on their heads, and Papa placed beautiful lei of sea foam on their necks.

Over time, other children were born to Papa and Wākea. Coral children, fish children, and seaweed children. Grass children, tree children, and bird children were born. Four legged children that crept and ran across the ground were born. At last, two legged children were born to live on the great sea mountains and tell their stories.”

What many media don’t cover is that the protests against this telescope have been going on for years, and with reasons beyond claims for ‘sacredness’. Many Native Hawaiians demand for the use of the native saying ‘Kapu Aina’ instead, which is difficult to translate into English but is best explained as ‘ancestral law’. ‘Kapu Aina’ stresses the importance of respect and balance; even the mention of ‘kapu aina’ is considered a form of desecration because the burial of ancestors had to happen in secret and was to be kept a secret. Such respect for past and future generations and the environment is interlinked with indigenous spiritual belief systems and it is what’s driving many indigenous efforts for conservation around the globe today.

Spearheading a global movement of protests against the mass-depletion of natural resources, indigenous have been uncannily coined ‘the protectors of biodiversity’. The ongoing struggle to protect Mauna Kea isn’t any different. Mauna Kea holds a very unique and wildly varied ecosystem of both desertification and rainforest in the lower regions, with a natural fresh water reserve sitting in its belly, which is at risk of contamination. According to Alyssa-Marie Kau, a former law clerk with Earthjustice, the construction of the telescope would be potentially damaging for the aquifer. Not only will the telescope be largely built underneath ground level, drilling holes into the water lens; it is also subjected to many hazardous chemicals, such as hydrochloric-acid, motor oil, and pesticides.

Taking all of the above into account, maybe the discussion over Mauna Kea isn’t so much about science versus tradition, but about a long history of appropriation for monetary gain and the indigenous’ call to finally turn the page on colonialism. Mauna Kea isn’t just sacred, its gradually becoming the symbol for so many broken promises that weren’t kept by foreigners coming into native Hawaii, and possibly the focal point for healing. It’s time that we bring out the story exactly as it is and replace the sensational representations of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ for a story where we collaborate to make our future better for everybody, not just scientists or those benefitting from science. For now, we would like to say thank you for those protectors for taking care of our planet for us and give our heartfelt support to those standing at the foot of Mauna Kea today.

*Photo taken from the official Facebook page Protect Mauna Kea. Want to show your support and/or learn more? https://www.protectmaunakea.net/