Protect Mauna Kea: A Message to the TIO5 min read

Protect Mauna Kea is a movement started by Native Hawaiian protestors in order to halt further development on their sacred mountain Mauna Kea. On the other side of this fight is an unlikely opponent: a group of astrophysicists called the TIO (The Thirty Meter Telescope International Observatory). The TIO, like the other telescope groups on the Mauna, believe that Mauna Kea is the perfect place to build their telescope due to the height, climate, and accessibility of the mount.

It is important to recognize that this group of astrophysicists is still a major developer on sacred Hawaiian land. And when their development on Mauna Kea was halted by protestors occupying the land they wanted to build on, they took the expected legal action of any developer and had them arrested. This sent shockwaves through the astrophysics and astronomy community, which often sees their work as completely harmless. At this moment, the astrophysicists of the TIO had to come to terms with the harsh reality of their actions.

Elder Woman Being Arrested on Mauna Kea (Credit: @rawhitiroa)

Within hours of the arrests of the 33 elders, Sal Wanying Fu and Mia de los Reyes, two graduate students within the TIO put out a statement asking the scientific community to consider the implications of criminalizing Native Hawaiian protestors for the sake of their telescope. After their petition received over 700 signatures from the scientific community, the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope slowed to a halt.

Over the past few months I have seen multiple statements made from leaders, professors, PI’s, and graduate students scrambling to reconcile or justify the actions of the TIO with their own beliefs. Some people believe that the TMT should be built elsewhere, some don’t take the protests seriously at all. One statement that troubled me was featured on the TMT’s website, it was written by three leaders of the TIO. Ed Stone, TMT Executive Director, Christophe Dumas, Observatory Scientist, and Gordon Squires Vice President of External Relations wrote in a letter titled “Understanding the Past, Navigating the Present, Embracing the Future”:

Among those who remain opposed are many who see TMT as a platform for what they believe is the wrong side in the much larger political issue of Hawaiian sovereignty and past injustices… However, TMT is a bystander in that larger conversation that has been going on for many years. And whether or not TMT is built in Hawaii will not bring closure to it.

This statement struck me because it showed that the leaders of the TMT lack some self-awareness: they perceive themselves as completely innocent of initiating this conflict with Native Hawaiians. It is obvious to anyone that the TMT is not a bystander by any interpretation of the word. #ProtectMaunaKea’s original goal was to ensure no further developments on Mauna Kea. Once Native people were arrested for opposing development on the Mauna, the TIO started a very familiar cycle that too often ends in the occupation of land and the loss of sovereignty for Native Hawaiians.

One only has to look at the US Military’s occupation of Kahoolawe. Native Hawaiians, including Walter Ritte (pictured below), occupied Kahoolawe in order to stop ordinance testing on a sacred island. After their arrests, the Military continued to use Kahoolawe to test the effects of the atom bomb on the island and stayed in possession of the island for fifty years.

FILE – In this Monday, July 15, 2019, file photo, activist Walter Ritte, left, and others lie chained to a cattle grate blocking a road at the base of Hawaii’s tallest mountain in Mauna Kea, Hawaii, protesting the construction of a giant telescope on land that some Native Hawaiians consider sacred. (AP Photo/Caleb Jones, File)

It may seem ridiculous and incredulous to many astrophysicists that they should be compared to the US Military, big oil companies, or major real estate developers. In a conversation I had with Kaniela Ing, previous Hawaiian state representative, he noted that members of the TIO are just “a bunch of self-proclaimed nerds that love space.” But as a developer on Hawaiian land, empowered by the legal system that continues to marginalize Native peoples, the TIO can easily use the very same tools past developers have to marginalize Native Hawaiians.

In this pause of development, #ProtectMaunaKea has turned into an amazing resurgence of Native Hawaiian cultural and spiritual practices on the Mauna. The Mauna is bustling with a new community center, star gazing nights, teach ins, and fundraising for scholarships and bail funds. The movement has grown to begin supporting other Native movements around the world.

Dancing on the Mauna  (Credit: @kapzphotography)


At the same time, the TIO is considering building in the Canary Islands instead. Ironically the Canary Islands site they chose also happens to be on a conservation area that includes culturally significant sites to the locals there. This could present a major legal hurdle, and the TMT is already under significant financial and political pressure from its international partners to build on Mauna Kea. It may only be a matter of time before they return to Mauna Kea.

As the leaders of the TIO consider their next steps, I ask them to fully recognize their position. If they continue to arrest protestors and build on the Mauna, they will in fact oppose a movement for Native Hawaiian sovereignty. The TIO has all the power now to make a stand, on behalf of the entire scientific community to support Native Sovereignty, and not develop on Mauna Kea.

As astrophysicists, we all share a belief that the knowledge of our universe should be shared and cherished by everyone. We must recognize that that is not possible if we do not also strive for equality and justice.

Amani Garvin

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