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The Battle For Mauna Kea

Mauna Kea,Jason Momoa,Thirty Meter Telescope
Alex Lin
Tim Mele
November 7, 201912:19 PM UTC (UTC +0)

Settled above the cool mist and early morning breeze sits Mauna Kea, the highest point on the island of Hawaii.

For centuries, ancient Hawaiian laws prohibited anyone but high-ranking Ali-i, or Hawaiian tribal leaders, from ascending the volcano’s summit. If you looked at Mauna Kea from a bird’s-eye view all those centuries ago, that’s exactly what you would see⁠—an empty mountain range devoid of any people but for a select few.

Today, you’d see hardhats, bulldozers, and protesters decrying the desecration of native land. This is Mauna Kea⁠—the designated construction site for the Thirty Meter Telescope.

Since the early 2000s, Mauna Kea has transformed into an observation plot for the United States’ leading astronomers. In April of 2013, the summit received the unique distinction of being selected as the optimal site for the CalTech and University of California funded Thirty Meter Telescope, an extremely large telescope (or ELT). The telescope’s size and capabilities have astronomers buzzing that the new observatory might lead researchers to discover extraterrestrial life.

Construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (or TMT) and the benefits of its scientific advancements have largely been overshadowed by its controversy. Since 2014, Native Hawaiians have led a series of protests against repurposing the summit for scientific research due to its spiritual significance. Since Hawaiian governor David Ige authorized additional construction of the telescope in July, tensions on the Big Island have reached a fever pitch. 

Even Aquaman has gotten involved. 

This past August, Jason Momoa released a 12-minute film on his official YouTube channel objecting to construction of the TMT. The film, entitled “WE ARE MAUNA KEA”, is a flurry of protestors and security personnel engaged in a stand-off. Hawaiian elders mournfully decry the desecration of their sacred land. Hawaiian police look on stoically from afar. They gingerly carry a few elders, exhausted from dehydration, off the construction site to be transported to safety below. 

Mr. Momoa appears wearing a Maile Haku Lei, a traditional Hawaiian headdress, and hands off an offering wrapped in green ti leaves to a protestor on the mountaintop. This ritual is meant to show respect when visiting a Wahi Pana, or sacred place. 

It’s an image that only scratches the surface of a controversy that’s been laden with violence, arrests, and death threats.


What’s happening on Mauna Kea is not an isolated incident. It’s a culmination of the complex  history between Native Hawaiians and the U.S. government. The scientific community is caught in the middle.

Supercluster sat down with Chiara Meakalia Ferrari-Wong, an astrophysicist studying at the University of Hawaii-Manoa and a Native Hawaiian, to hear her perspective on the controversy. 

We asked Ferrari-Wong, what is it about TMT and Mauna Kea that’s causing such an uproar on the island of Hawaii? “There are some who fully believe TMT will cause desecration to Mauna Kea and deeply want to protect the land. There are some who want to reclaim Hawaiian lands through the sovereignty movement. There are some who wish to reclaim their culture, some who have a deep distrust in the government and the university,” she said, “The controversy is complex in that each subsequent group of people that joins, joins for a slightly different reason.”

Ferrari-Wong believes that the telescope should be built. The potential TMT holds for ground-based astronomy will not only bolster research, but also do wonders for Hawaii’s economy. “The astronomy industry had an impact of over $160 million statewide in 2012, and over $90 million in Hawaii County,” says Ferrari-Wong “If one is skeptical that TMT will not provide jobs or opportunities to the local community or Hawaiians, I urge them to look at where the money is going.”

Backers of the TMT have created several endeavors to link telescope operations to the local community. The facility has created The Hawaiiai Island New Knowledge Fund (or THINK Fund) and allocated $1 million annually to foster STEM education amongst Hawaii Island students and encourage them to join Hawaii’s science and technology workforce. 

Ferrari-Wong believes that these initiatives will foster economic growth in Hawaii and keep local talent from straying far from home. It’s a necessity for the Aloha state, given that its population has decreased over the past two years. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Hawaii’s statewide population lost 3,700 residents from July 2017 to July 2018⁠—the fifth greatest loss nationwide that year. 

With a lack of higher paying job opportunities and the highest grocery prices in the US, many Hawaiians make the pilgrimage to the mainland for a better life. “It’s important to think about what higher paying job opportunities are here for people to pursue. For those who choose a STEM education, many local opportunities after graduation are for the military or construction as engineers,” says Ferrari-Wong, “TMT will also form and sustain a Workforce Pipeline Program, with a goal to prepare local residents for higher paying STEM positions in Hawai’i.”

“Not only is astronomy a great way to diversify Hawaii’s economy, but it can also give locals more options on what kind of careers to pursue here and offer competitive salaries similar to the same kinds of opportunities on the mainland.”

The backers of the TMT are dedicated to improving Hawaii’s standard of living. But for many Native Hawaiians, the centuries of colonization and land desecration they have faced must continue no further in any way, shape, or form. “In the end, I know and I believe with all my heart, TMT will not be built on Mauna Kea,” said protest leader Kahookahi Kanuha at an 800-strong gathering at the Hawaii Convention Center, “And our people will be in a much better position than we’ve been in over 100 years.”


Kanuha’s belief could ultimately become a reality. Since August, TMT backers have been seeking a permit to build the telescope on one of Spain’s Canary Islands, La Palma. Financial supporters of TMT insist that La Palma is a great alternative site, should building atop Mauna Kea prove too much of a challenge. 

Many astronomers think otherwise and are strongly against losing out on Mauna Kea’s objectively higher potential as an observation site. According to data from the 2016 TMT Alternate Site report, La Palma dwarfs Mauna Kea by just under 2,000 meters. When it comes to stargazing, even just a few meters can make a difference. A lower altitude means that astronomers have more atmosphere to look through.

In that same report, researchers observed that La Palma only had a dry night around 20% of the time, whereas Mauna Kea had a chance of being dry 54% of the time. Greater humidity means more water vapor in the air distorting the telescope’s view, a fact that’s raised further concerns in the scientific community about the La Palma site.

On the other hand, Hawaiian legislators remain divided over the TMT’s construction plans. In a survey conducted by the Honolulu Civil Beat, 22 legislators voiced support for the telescope, two voiced disapproval, six answered the HCB’s questions but declined to express approval or dissent, and 35 declined to respond. The decision split is representative of a larger conflict within many of Hawaii’s legislators⁠—maintaining the balance between an ancient culture and state duty. Representative Jimmy Tokioka remarked to the Civil Beat, “As a Native Hawaiian, I understand why Native Hawaiians are protesting.”

Still, TMT supporters insist that the telescope remain on the mauna. Ferrari-Wong is among those firm believers in Mauna Kea’s viability. “Hands down, it has the best seeing conditions anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere,” says Ferrari-Wong, “Along with a lack of light pollution, high elevation, and low humidity. All of this makes for precise observations, meaning astronomers can make discoveries with lower margins of error.”

Most importantly to Ferrari-Wong, Mauna Kea’s relationship with the TMT would be mutually beneficial to researchers and Native Hawaiians. If the TMT were built atop another summit, it would impact the futures of young Hawaiians pursuing careers in science. “What’s worse for me is if the TMT moves to the Canary Islands, it has broader implications for the overall astronomy industry in Hawaii. [The controversy] says that if a facility approaches the permit approval process and the community properly, participates in negotiations with locals and Native Hawaiians, and gives back to the community, it still is at a high risk for failure,” says Ferrari-Wong, “How will that impact STEM education and jobs here? Will a greater number of STEM students from Hawaii move to the mainland for better jobs?”


To other Native Hawaiians, the promises of new jobs and an economic facelift are nothing to be excited about. Hawaii’s history with corporations from the mainland has been characterized by exploitative colonization since the US government’s overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy’s last queen, Lilliuokalani, in 1893. 

“There’s a certain expectation amongst some Native Hawaiians that these promises will either go unfulfilled or become twisted in order to benefit the upper crust of Hawaiian society. “I think there’s a lot of problems in Hawaii,” Momoa said to CNN, “There’s a lot of things happening in our history, a lot of injustice, and so we’re shining a light on it.”

To Ferrari-Wong, these apprehensions are born out of Hawaii’s tumultuous history. “The ultimate thing I’m seeing is that it is no longer really about the telescope, it is about a deep distrust in a problematic system,” she explained. “For years, these shortcomings were glossed over, never addressed, but now that this movement exists, issues easily come to light, and we can openly see the things that are broken.”

To some Native Hawaiians, the system remains deeply broken. On October 31st, the University of Hawaii Board of Regents released proposed land management rules on Mauna Kea. To the kia’i, or protectors, of the mountain, these rules are another legal obstacle. Protector Andre Perez says, “It appears that they are designed [to limit] activism and civil resistance, which seems to me to be specifically against the protect Mauna Kea movement… It puts the onus on us to have to prove everything. 

We asked Ferrari-Wong what her response would be to those still concerned about the TMT, even with initiatives like the THINK Fund and Workforce Pipeline Program. “Astronomy is something foundational for many of our ancestors, regardless of where we come from. Not only Hawaiians, but Babylonians, Greeks, Indians, Mayans, Egyptians… and more, all looked towards the skies to learn and pass on their knowledge. It has to do with our own human curiosity, where we ask why this is what this is, and why we are what we are…. Something does need to change, but astronomy is not the enemy here.”

Alex Lin
Tim Mele
November 7, 201912:19 PM UTC (UTC +0)