The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Native Hawaiians’ protests stop researchers from studying the skies

A new giant telescope is to be built at the summit of Mauna Kea, sacred land for some.

Demonstrators gather to block a road at the base of Hawaii’s tallest mountain Monday to protest the construction of a giant telescope on land that some Native Hawaiians consider sacred.
Demonstrators gather to block a road at the base of Hawaii’s tallest mountain Monday to protest the construction of a giant telescope on land that some Native Hawaiians consider sacred. (Caleb Jones/AP)
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Astronomers have stopped looking through 13 telescopes at the summit of Mauna Kea mountain in Hawaii while protesters block a road in an attempt to prevent the construction of a giant new observatory. Dozens of researchers around the world won’t be able to gather data and study the skies as a result of the move.

The announcement came as Native Hawaiian protesters blocked the base of the road for a second day Tuesday. Protesters object to the construction of the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope, which is expected to be one of the world’s most advanced, out of concern it would harm an area some native Hawaiians consider sacred.

The East Asian Observatory was scheduled to study carbon monoxide clouds in star-forming regions inside the Milky Way galaxy on Tuesday night. Jessica Dempsey, the deputy director of the East Asian Observatory, called the clouds “the DNA of how baby stars form” and said they help astronomers figure out how stars work.

Protesters said they told law enforcement they would allow telescope technicians to pass so long as they would be allowed to drive one car to the summit each day for cultural and religious practices. They said they wouldn’t allow National Guard members to pass.

No agreement was reached between the two sides.

“We are at a standstill,” said Kaho’okahi Kanuha, one of the protest leaders. “This is about our right to exist, the way our kupuna existed,” he said, using the Hawaiian word for elder.

“We fight and resist and we stand, or we disappear forever,” he said.

He told reporters that efforts to stop the Thirty Meter Telescope were about protecting the indigenous people of Hawaii.

The telescope’s primary mirror would measure 98 feet in diameter. It would be three times as wide as the world’s largest existing visible-light telescope, with nine times more area.

The summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii’s tallest peak, is one of the world’s best spots for astronomy because it has clear weather for most of the year and minimal light pollution.

Governor David Ige announced plans last week to close the summit access road on Monday to allow construction to begin. The decision attracted hundreds of protesters to the site, who formed their own roadblocks.

Other Native Hawaiians say they don’t believe the Thirty Meter Telescope will violate Mauna Kea. Most of the cultural practices on the mountain take place away from the summit, said Annette Reyes, a Native Hawaiian from the Big Island.

“It’s going to be out of sight, out of mind,” she said.

Reyes said there are many others like her, but they’re reluctant to publicly support the telescope because of bullying from protesters, a group she calls a “vocal minority.”

Reyes said Hawaii’s young people can’t afford to miss out on the educational opportunities, citing telescope officials’ pledge to provide $1 million every year of the 19-year Mauna Kea sublease to boost science, technology, engineering and math education.

She challenged the characterization of the dispute as a clash between science and culture.

Science was an integral part of ancient Hawaiian lives, Reyes said. “Everything they did was science, from growing fish and taro to wayfinding.”

— Associated Press

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