Saying a‘ole to the world’s second largest telescope - Ka Leo O Hawaii: Opinion

Saying a‘ole to the world’s second largest telescope

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Posted: Friday, November 8, 2013 5:00 am

Incredible passion from hauMĀNA, a Hawaiian independence student group, shook up campus a few weeks ago.

The fervor arose when portions of a mural were painted over that depicted Mauna Kea and had messages to demand UH to pull support from the Thirty Meter Telescope. The slated construction of this telescope threatens the culturally significant, delicate land of the Mauna Kea summit. Environmentalists, cultural practitioners and local residents express opposition to the proposed telescope, which is estimated to cost $1 billion in construction.


Native Hawaiian groups are among the most passionate to prevent the telescope, citing the sanctity of the summit of Mauna Kea and its cultural significance. Based on traditional stories, the mountain is a child born of Papahānaumoku and Wākea, who are responsible for the creation of the islands. Therefore, Mauna Kea is considered an elder sibling of the people. In Hawaiian culture, the younger siblings have a kuleana, or duty, to care of their elder siblings; in turn, the elder siblings provide for and protect the younger siblings. Many believe these traditions indicate a cultural obligation to defend the mountain. Mauna Kea is also sacred as the location of at least one burial site and a ceremonial spot for cultural practitioners.

“The lack of say and control we have over our sacred places is one of the ongoing traumas of colonialism and occupation for Kanaka Māoli in Hawai‘i,” said Ilima Long, a Hawaiian studies master’s student and an organizer of the movement against the telescope. 

Environmentalists also voice serious concern about TMT, as existing telescopes in Hawai‘i have had significant impacts on the land, with seven documented mercury spills. According to KAHEA Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance, “A court-ordered EIS concludes the cumulative impact of 30 years of astronomy activity has caused significant, substantial and adverse harm.” KAHEA also explains that Mauna Kea is “home to unique ecosystems and rare and endangered species, many of which are found nowhere else on our planet.”

The massive nature of the telescope on one of the highest points in the state poses significant threats to the incredibly fragile ecosystem of the summit, which inevitably affects the stability of the rest of the island.


Mauna Kea is now under the control of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, whose governing body is the Board of Land and Natural Resources. The BLNR leases the land to the University of Hawai‘i through the Board of Regents, who then deals out land to build telescopes on the summit. UH charges developers $1 a year in rent.

Long feels that proponents of the telescope are seeking “ideal sites” to conduct research and gain academic prestige. 

“As a student who pays tuition every semester, I have a responsibility to respond to UH’s direct support of the destruction of this sacred summit, and I will hold this institution responsible not only for their actions but for their hypocrisy as a ‘Hawaiian place of learning,’” Long said.

TMT is a collaboration of universities in Canada and California as well as institutions in China and India. The TMT website claims that the goal is “to marshal lessons-learned from today’s leading observatories and use that foundation to push the frontiers of technology thereby enabling astronomy research that has proven to be beyond the current generation.”

TMT’s official website includes almost no mention of the location being on Hawai‘i island, and it does not once address the environmental and cultural impact the construction and structure will have on the summit. Based on the site, it seems there is not much acknowledgement of Hawai‘i involved in the development of TMT, and this raises major concerns in the consideration of the uniqueness of Hawai‘i. These islands are rooted in traditional Hawaiian culture, and additionally, their ecosystems are extremely fragile and vulnerable. These are factors that cannot be ruled out when making decisions about TMT.

UH wants to scrap their current lease with the BLNR and replace it with a 65-year lease. This will ensure the mountain is under control of those in favor of the telescope for many decades, and Long and many other activists will be campaigning against the lease renewal. Such a bold move should not and will not go under the radar of students and community members.

The BLNR will discuss the potential to renew the lease of the Mauna Kea summit at their meeting today.

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