Protests have been gathering momentum in the US state of Hawaii. The object of contention is a scientific observatory (the Thirty Metre Telescope project, TMT) to be built on Mauna Kea (in Hawaiian Mauna Kea means White Mountain).
A dormant volcano, rising to some 4,000m above sea level, Mauna Kea is notable for being the world’s highest mountain (with much of its base being underwater). For those working in the field of astronomy, the summit of this volcano is widely recognised as ideal; low levels of light pollution (dark skies), stable airflow, gentle slopes and a dry and high Alpine environment. Since the site was developed in the 1960s, the summit area has been filled with an international network of laboratories. The TMT project involves a partnership between the California Institute of Technology and international partners from Canada, China and Japan. For its advocates, TMT promises to provide a telescopic capacity that is many times greater than the ageing Hubble Space Telescope (launched in 1990).
While there might be a powerful scientific rationale to conduct astronomy and astrophysics on Mauna Kea, recent protests on the access road to the summit remind us that mountains are sacred places. Mountains have been used by states to mark national borders, consolidate strategic advantage and to exploit resources such as water and minerals. But for many Indigenous peoples, mountains are integral to cultural knowledge and belief structures. In Hawaii, Mauna Kea is considered to be a sacred peak. It is the epicentre of Hawaiian cosmology, with the volcano considered to be the meeting point for Earth Mother and Sky Father. It is integral to native Hawaiian self-identity and respect for the land.
The TMT proposal was approved by Governor David Ige, Japanese-American by birth, in July after a decade-long legal struggle eventually involving a judgement in its favour by the Hawaiian supreme court in 2018. Native Hawaiians have now taken to direct action with state police (many of whom are native Hawaiians) arresting protestors, including highly respected elders. Some of those arrested were in their eighties and taken away in their wheelchairs. The dispute is a bitter one with native Hawaiians believing that it has been made worse by the fact that settler Hawaiians have been responsible for the decision to approve TMT. While protestors were staging sit-ins and blocking the access road to the observatory site, pop-up protests in Hawaii and beyond abounded. Native Hawaiians also made their oppositional feelings known on social media as well.
The protestors were quick to notify journalists and others that their opposition to the TMT proposal was not rooted in opposition to research infrastructure. The University of Hawaii has been instrumental in supporting native Hawaiian research and teaching. Rather, the protests were shaped by a frustration with the prevailing settler colonialism that transformed Hawaii from the 18th century onwards. The British, and later American, occupation led to the Hawaiian monarchy ceding territory to the US government. After admission as the 50th state, the state government granted the University of Hawaii access to Mauna Kea for the purposes of research. What grates is the disavowal of indigenous Hawaiian wishes and interests. Multiple observatories were built even though protestors noted that the original lease stipulated ‘an observatory’. What became clearer over time was that the summit area was not being stewarded effectively. Legal challenges arose in the 1990s and 2000s, and attempts were made to rescind the leasing arrangement. Anti-TMT protestors were frustrated by the Hawaiian supreme court ending their legal options in 2018.
What made the TMT proposal even more egregious was that there was another site available in the Canary Islands. Permission had been secured and the decision could have been made to relocate the project to Spain. But that choice was not exercised. The TMT proposal was foisted on a community angry with their marginalisation from decision-making.
For much of the post-colonial history of the islands, native Hawaiians have felt that territorial, state and federal governments have prioritised non-Indigenous military, strategic and economic interests. The US military has eleven bases including the iconic Pearl Harbour, known in Hawaiian as Pu‘uloa. For decades, the US military used the Hawaiian island Kahoʻolawe as a bombing and live-fire training site. It took a decade to clean-up the island and only in 2004 was it formally returned to the state of Hawaii. But the clean-up operation was far from complete, with unexploded ordnance a prevailing hazard.
Native Hawaiians are fed up of state and federal-level infrastructural projects and military operations trumping their interests and rights. The Hawaiian governor is contemplating deploying the national guard to clear protestors from the affected site, and protestors are angry that Ige will not meet with them. The TMT could now be doomed regardless.
The protests bring to the fore the complex settler colonial and militaristic legacies of an island that is not and never has been the sort of white American fantasy space depicted in television shows such as Magnum PI or Hawaii Five-0.
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