Mauna Kea: a Mountain in Discord

Apr 13, 2015

Several hula halaus danced in honor of Mauna Kea at the base of Pu'u Huluhulu.
Credit Molly Solomon

While construction on the Thirty Meter Telescope remains stalled for now, protesters of the project continue to hold vigil on Mauna Kea. What happens next remains unclear.

Kumu hula Māpuana deSilva leads Hālau Mōhala 'Ilima as they dance 9,200 feet above sea level, atop Mauna Kea.
Credit Molly Solomon

On an overcast morning, caravans of dancers make their way 9,200 feet above sea level, to the site of the protester’s camp, across the street from Mauna Kea’s Visitor Information Center. Many of them are fresh off the stage from Merrie Monarch, the three-day hula competition in Hilo.

Vicky Holt Takamine, kumu hula for Pua Ali‘i ‘Ilima, felt it was important to come to the mountain in support of the protesters, who’ve maintained a presence on Mauna Kea for more than two weeks. “We’ve been advocating for no more development on Mauna Kea for years,” Takamine said. “And our words have fallen on deaf ears.”

An artist's rendering of the Thirty Meter Telescope atop Mauna Kea.
Credit TMT

The $1.4 billion project will be the 14th and largest observatory on Mauna Kea. Scientists say the telescope would allow astronomers to see 13 billion light-years away, going all the way back to the origins of the universe. This could lead to greater knowledge of star formation, dark energy, and other fundamental questions of existence. While some say the benefits of such a project outweigh community protest, others believe the underlying cultural conflict needs to be addressed.

“I think there is a perception that there’s a disconnect from the observatories to the community," said Doug Simons, Executive Director at Canada France Hawai‘i Telescope. Before that he ran the Gemini Observatory for nearly two decades and has been an astronomer on the Big Island since 1986. He says in all his time working with the telescopes, he’s never seen this kind of opposition. “Completely unprecedented in the history of Hawaiian astronomy— no comparison,” he said. “And you have to ask yourself, what’s the difference? A lot of people are asking what changed since the last time a big telescope was put up there that has allowed this wedge to be driven in the community.”

He fears that wedge is already changing the way astronomers are perceived in Hawai‘i. For the first time, the Mauna Kea Astronomy Outreach Committee didn’t have a float in the Merrie Monarch parade. “We just pulled the plug out of concern for the safety of my staff,” Simons said. “It’s a shame that members of this community right now feel sufficiently alienated that they are uncomfortable to be in certain areas at certain times. We should all be celebrating something like Merrie Monarch. It’s really sad that it’s come to that.”

Hundreds of TMT opponents gathered on the mountain over the weekend.
Credit Molly Solomon

Still, it has been relatively quiet on the mountain, largely due to a temporary moratorium on construction that has been extended an additional week. Earlier this month, 31 people were arrested for blocking the road to prevent construction crews from reaching the TMT site.

Credit Molly Solomon

One of them was 26-year old Kaho’okahi Kanuha, a preschool teacher at a Hawaiian charter school in Kealakekua. He says the battle over 5 acres atop Mauna Kea is about more than just land. It’s about a clash of beliefs. “Curiosity should not supersede the values and traditions of the host people,” he said. “We support science. It’s the basis and foundation of our kūpuna being able to find new land and create new life. However we did not desecrate and destroy things to do that. That’s the biggest philosophical difference.”

The protests have spread beyond the state and are gaining momentum across the globe. TMT opponent Lanakila Manguil is amazed at the outpouring of support, largely thanks to social media. "This is a first. We've never had this level of connection, of worldwide support. All eyes are on Hawaii and it's an opportunity to share with the world our culture, our story." 

Hashtags like #WeAreMaunaKea and #TMTshutdown have taken the internet by storm. Recently, the team behind the Thirty Meter Telescope launched their own website and hashtag #WeSupportTMT

The next dates to watch may be the end of the time out next Monday. In the meantime, opponents of the TMT say they have no plans to leave the mountain.