Hawaii TMT: Desecrating sacred land or finding new frontiers?

Comet Halle-Bop seen from Mauna KeaImage copyright Science Photo Library
Image caption Comet Hale-Bopp seen above the current Mauna Kea telescopes

Rifts over a dormant volcano in Hawaii have resurfaced in recent days, pitting the state’s culture and history against its ambitions.

Plans for a powerful new telescope near the summit of the Mauna Kea volcano could bring in hundreds of jobs and boost science and the economy. But some native Hawaiians insist the site is sacred and that the long-planned construction should not go ahead.

Last week, protesters blocked access to the building site on Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain in the world when measured from its underwater base. At least 33 people were arrested, given citations and released.

Hawaii’s governor has issued an “emergency proclamation” that increases powers to break up the blockade but said he wanted to find a “peaceful and satisfactory” solution for both sides.

Here, some of the people at the centre of the debate explain what Mauna Kea and the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project mean to them.

For: ‘It might lead us to alien life’

The $1.4bn (£1.1bn) TMT could help answer one of mankind’s biggest questions: is there life on other planets? That’s according to Roy Gal, an associate astronomer at the University of Hawaii.

“We will, for the first time, be able to make measurements of the atmospheres of Earth-size planets in the habitable zone around other stars,” he said. “We will see if those planets’ atmospheres have water and molecules that could be due to biological activity.

Image copyright Thirty Meter Telescope
Image caption An artist’s impression of how the TMT telescope will look

“I study galaxies and how they evolve over time in different kinds of environments in the universe. The TMT would allow us to push these studies to fainter galaxies – ones that are further away and therefore we see them a longer time ago. It would allow us to paint a more complete life story of galaxies, from infancy to adulthood.

“With current telescopes, it’s like studying humans starting when they’re teenagers. The TMT would allow us to see them as infants.”

Roy said Mauna Kea had the ideal conditions for viewing the cosmos and that telescopes there had already contributed to major findings, including the observation that the expansion of the universe was accelerating.

“Any new telescope capability we get, we always, always without fail find something new that we didn’t expect,” he said.

Against: ‘It is our temple’

The mountain is a temple to native Hawaiians, offering a connection between “creation and creator”, said Kealoha Pisciotta, president of the Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, one of the main groups opposing the TMT.

“It contains some of our highest born and most revered ancestors. It is a symbol of peace and aloha”, she said.

The summit, considered to be in the realm of gods, “is reserved for very special things, unique things, things done by the chiefs and chiefesses, things done by priests and spiritual leaders. It is not just a general place for man.”

A number of telescopes have already been constructed on top of Mauna Kea, and Kealoha and others say they do not believe promises that the TMT will be the last.

“We allowed astronomy to have a place on the Mauna Kea but they continue to ask for more and more and more, and we have to say no at this point. Because when we say yes it means saying yes to the destruction of our endangered lands,” she said.

Building on Mauna Kea was like “destroying the inside of a church because within the whole landscape are religious things”, Kealoha added.

“All these man-made structures are right in the middle of our environment of belief.”

Image copyright Alamy

She said that the planned construction of the TMT was a sign of economics taking precedence over human rights and that, in addition to it being a sacred landscape, the mountain was an important environmental site and source of water.

Kealoha urged the groups behind the TMT to consider moving it to a backup site in the Canary Islands, and said the protests would continue until this happened.

“Human life is more important than our sense of discovery. Sense of discovery is good and all but what does it mean when you’re willing to let people get hurt?” she asked.

For: ‘Astronomy helps me feel connected to my culture’

The volcano is a “sacred and special place that must be treated with the utmost respect”, said Alexis Acohido, a native Hawaiian who has worked for more than four years at existing observatories on Mauna Kea.

“I support the Thirty Meter Telescope project because of the educational opportunities it can provide,” she said.

“Astronomy is one of the ways I feel most connected to my culture. Hawaiians are incredible scientists, engineers, and overall problem solvers. The way that they were able to navigate the vast Pacific by observing the winds, waves, and stars is inspiring to me.

“Itʻs my belief that the science we are doing on Mauna Kea is an extension of that legacy, and makes me proud to call myself Hawaiian.”

Image copyright Science Photo Library
Image caption The Milky Way photographed from Mauna Kea

Alexis said the TMT would not disrupt culturally significant sites on the mountain.

“To me, TMT has been pono” – a Hawaiian term meaning proper or morally correct – “throughout this whole process. That demonstrates to me that they are willing to be responsible stewards on Mauna Kea.”

Against: ‘Not an opposition to science’

“The Mauna Kea is recognised as the home of several deities all of whom are associated with water,” said Noelani Goodyear-Kaopua, a professor of political science focusing on indigenous and native Hawaiian politics. “They are embodied in the forms of precipitation that surround the mountain.”

The mountain is part of Hawaii’s “ceded lands”, which once belonged to the Hawaiian kingdom and are now held in trust by the state. The land on which the telescopes are built is leased to the University of Hawaii, where Noelani works.

She said the division over the project had trickled down to the university itself, as she questioned the research ethics of the project.

Hundreds of scientists and astronomers, including many from institutions linked to the project, have also condemned the “criminalisation” of people opposing the TMT.

Noelani stressed that the protests against the TMT were not “an opposition to science”.

“It’s really an opposition to industrial development and the destruction of land and natural resources, and precious and fragile ecology,” she said.

“We have stood by while too many of our precious resources and environment have been degraded and harmed and we’re not going to stand for it any more.”

For: ‘The mountain is big enough for everyone’

Kalepa Baybayan, a native Hawaiian navigator, said Mauna Kea had long served as a “beacon” that had led him home from journeys at sea.

“My relationship with the mountain comes from the experiences that I’ve had voyaging across the ocean and using the stars as a means to help create a guidance system for ourselves,” he said. “In my travels, in navigating to Hawaii without any instruments, we usually start with Mauna Kea.

“My appreciation for astronomy comes from a totally cultural lens,” he added.

“Our job as humanity is to ensure that our planet lives a long, full life. But sometime in the very, very distant future, life on this planet will come to an end and astronomy looks at the very beginnings of the universe and where we’re going.

“The reason that I support astronomy is because I want to know what options there are for humanity. What I don’t want is for humanity to slide backwards into a scientific dark age all over again,” Kalepa said.

Kalepa argued that his ancestors would have approved of the TMT as a “portal to the universe”.

“I just think that people have forgotten the fact that as early oceanic explorers, we left the safety of the shores and discovered the stars through sailing our canoes across thousands of miles of the ocean,” he said.

He also said there would be economic benefits to the TMT, including rent payments and jobs. “There is enough room on the mountain for everyone. What people have to learn is to share.”

Against: ‘Hawaii is its culture’

The mountain is central to Hawaii’s identity, said Theresa Keohunani Taber, an opponent of the TMT project who helps to raise support for the movement on social media.

“Hawaiian culture and Hawaiian language and Hawaiian resources and Hawaiian people are what Hawaii is. If you start eliminating that narrative then there is no Hawaii,” she said.

Theresa first became involved in protecting Mauna Kea after moving to Hawaii from the mainland US and attending a meeting of hundreds of opponents of a separate project on the mountain in 2002.

“It was my very first introduction to how important, how impactful the Mauna Kea has been, not only to our state but to our culture and history as Hawaiians,” she said. “That was a very powerful moment.”

Image copyright Ryan Finnerty/Hawaii Public Radio via REUTERS
Image caption Protesters at the Mauna Kea say they will not give up until the TMT is halted

She said she and other Hawaiians “felt the pain” of people in France when a fire engulfed the Notre-Dame cathedral in April.

“We wouldn’t wish that on any people; to lose their place of worship or the place that connects them to the higher power that they believe in. Mauna Kea and all mountains, all sacred places, are just as reverent, just as important as a church or a mosque.”

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