Explained | Why are native Hawaiians against the construction of a telescope?

Actor Dwayne

Actor Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson talks to opponents of the TMT telescope during a visit to the protest site blocking the construction of the giant telescope on July 24, 2019, at the base of Mauna Kea on Hawaii Island.   | Photo Credit: AP

On July 24, the Governor of Hawaii, David Ige, met the protestors at the Mauna Kea summit who have been blocking roads for about 10 days now, demanding a stop to the construction of a Thirty Metre Telescope (TMT). The Governor assured the protestors that he would work with them and that the next steps taken would be “in the best interests of all the people of Hawaii.” Actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson also visited the protestors on July 24 and extended his support.

The protests started after the Governor of Hawaii announced that the construction of the Thirty Metre Telescope would commence on the summit of Mauna Kea from July 15. The fight over the summit has been going on for almost 10 years and the Hawaii Supreme Court giving permission for the construction in 2018 further aggravated the situation.

What exactly is a Thirty Metre Telescope and what are its uses?

They are extremely large telescopes that will help explore Space and cosmic objects better. Its prime mirror will be about 30m in diameter making it larger than any visible-light telescope currently on Earth. The researchers claim that it can open new fields of astronomy and astrophysics, and also provide job opportunities to the locals in STEM.

“If you read the opinions of local people who are pro-TMT they often say that there are limited opportunities outside of working for the military. To me this means we need to encourage grassroots innovation rather than be satisfied with taking a job that might be interesting but be the cause of tension and stress for our families and communities,” explains Dr. Rosie Alegado, Associate Professor of Oceanography at the University of Hawaii in an email to The Hindu.

An illustration provided by Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) shows the proposed giant telescope on Mauna Kea on Hawaii's Big Island.

An illustration provided by Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) shows the proposed giant telescope on Mauna Kea on Hawaii's Big Island.   | Photo Credit: AP


Why are they against a telescope?

Native Hawaiians consider the summit sacred and “Mauna Kea has also been designated as a conservation district by the state of Hawaii. Various environmental impact statement (EIS) reports have detailed the mismanagement in the area,” adds Dr. Alegado.

“The telescope would be built in an alpine desert above the cloud layer which is very dry and houses several endemic insects found nowhere else in the world. What is more significant to me and many others is that this whole mountain is a deeply cultural significant site, and the TMT itself is massive and would require a massive disturbance to the summit. For people who connect deeply to the land and natural elements, this is really really really problematic,” adds Aurora Kagawa-Viviani, a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Geography and Environment, the University of Hawaii, in an email to The Hindu. “The willingness of the Governor of Hawaii to send armed officers to the site for what is passive resistance of unarmed Hawaiian community members including many educators is deeply troubling to me.”

Is it a fight between science and culture?

Aurora Kagawa-Viviani says that the science vs culture framing has been deployed by TMT proponents to imply that Hawaiians advocating for the protection Mauna Kea are anti-science and backward.

“That is a trope that emerged during the 1600s when the Catholic Church persecuted astronomers like Copernicus and Galileo but is misapplied when considering indigenous knowledge systems because it is a projection of Western concepts on non-western traditions,” adds Dr. Alegado.

Astronomers Alan Tokunaga and Alan Stockton join a rally in support the Thirty Meter Telescope outside the Hawaii State Capitol in Honolulu on July 25, 2019.

Astronomers Alan Tokunaga and Alan Stockton join a rally in support the Thirty Meter Telescope outside the Hawaii State Capitol in Honolulu on July 25, 2019.   | Photo Credit: AP


Why do the astronomers want to build the telescope here? Can’t they find another location?

TMT scientists conducted tests at different sites across Chile, Mexico and Hawaii and in 2009 identified Mauna Kea at the ideal location. It provided the perfect height, atmosphere conditions such as cloud properties, wind speed, air temperature, solar radiation and cooling rates of the ground needed for the telescope.

The website of TMT international observatory clearly mentions that “Though Hawaii is TMT’s chosen site, the challenges over the past several years have led the TMT International Observatory Board to develop a ‘Plan B’, a secondary Northern Hemisphere site on which to construct the observatory. This is La Palma, Canary Islands, Spain. An Environmental Impact Assessment has been done for the Roque de Los Muchachos site and additional use permits are being completed.”

So what next?

On July 23, the state court ruled that the Governor should modify the emergency proclamation that he issued last week. On the same day, a temporary restraining order to halt the construction of the telescope was also denied by the court.

Though there have been arrests taking place from July 17, protesters seem to be increasing in number. The strategy, for now, is to just sit down, block the road, remain silent and hold on to “aloha ‘āina’” or “love of the land” which is the central value of Hawaiian culture.

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Printable version | Apr 4, 2020 5:34:18 AM |

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