Telescope on Mauna Kea causes controversy

Grace Crocker, Staff Writer


On July 15, 2019, more than 10,000 people gathered on the island of Hawaii to protest the construction of an eighteen-story telescope on Mauna Kea. The Thirty Meter Telescope is planned to be built on a dormant volcano, and scientists consider this to be the most ideal location for advances in astronomy due to the island’s climate and location. But this caused an uproar among the Native Hawaiians because the volcano where the construction site lies is sacred to their culture.

The Native Hawaiian protesters, also called “protectors” by Lanakila Mangauil, a Hawaiian culture and history teacher, and leader of the Protect Mauna Kea Movement, claim that the construction of a telescope on their land conflicts with indigenous rights, sovereignty, and environmental stewardship. According to Mangauil, they are making a stand to be caretakers of their native land. The philosophy that all Native Hawaiians share, aloha ‘aina, can be translated to “love of the land,” which is a driving force behind their goals to protect the volcano. Pua Case told Democracy Now that Hawaiians are not anti-science, but anti-desecration; they are against anything built over their aquifers and sacred mountain, no matter what it is; including this telescope.

Thirteen telescopes already exist on Mauna Kea. To protestors, the decision to build the Thirty Meter Telescope reflects a lack of recognition for indigenous sacred sites, and violates residents’ rights to a healthy environment, according to U.S.A Today.  

Mangauil states that “[the existing telescopes] are very detrimental to this ecosystem, which is directly connected to why it is detrimental culturally.” 

The Hawaiian Environmental Alliance confirms this, stating that these astronomy facilities threaten the volcano’s “fragile” ecosystem, and have already destroyed several habitats for native species.  Protests have also been seen on the islands of Oahu, Kaua and Maui, as well as Guam. Well-known film stars Jason Momoa and Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson are also known to be involved in the protection demonstrations, as well as Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic presidential candidate, who Tweeted her support. 

However, there are Hawaiian citizens who support the telescope construction. In a Civil Beat poll, 64 percent of 1,367 registered voters supported the telescope, as compared to 31 percent who oppose it. Native Hawaiians, who only made up of 12 percent of people polled, are split more evenly, with 48 percent who oppose while 44 percent support.

Scientists, however, believe that a telescope in this precise location can play an important role in finding signs of extraterrestrial life. Hawaii’s Supreme Court approved the district use permit in October after ruling that the telescope does not violate any environmental laws or Native Hawaiian rights to traditional practices.

“Like most in the state of Hawaii, we recognize that we have complied with everything that has been asked of us over the last 10 years and that we have every legal right to proceed. In a safe manner in a timely fashion,” Gordon Squires, vice president of the Thirty Meter Telescope’s external relations, told USA Today. 

Thirty Meter Telescope officials say they will take care to protect Mauna Kea’s inhabitants, and that construction will not threaten the area’s groundwater.

Because of strong opposition, Thirty Meter Telescope officials are working on “Plan B” where they would potentially relocate construction of the telescope to La Palma, Canary Islands, Spain. Scientists still push that the Canary Islands are not viable locations to witness astronomical advancement and Mauna Kea remains the best site in the world for the Thirty Meter Telescope to be built.

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