Thursday, October 09, 2014

Groundbreaking ceremony for the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) disrupted by protesters

by Salman Hameed

After years of court cases, it looks like the construction for the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) is about to start (see this earlier post: Thirty Meter Telescope Inching Towards Final Approval). Yes, I'm an astronomer, but I do feel a bit sad about native Hawai'ians who have been fighting to keep this large telescope off of Mauna Kea. It is a complicated issue at the intersection of economic development, science, colonial history, power imbalance between the interested parties, and questions of the sacred. Perhaps, appropriately, the groundbreaking ceremony for the telescope was disrupted yesterday by protestors:
A groundbreaking ceremony for what will be one of the world’s most advanced observatories was disrupted Tuesday by Native Hawaiian protesters and others opposed to the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea.
More than 50 protesters blocked access near the mountain’s summit and greeted vans carrying dozens of attendees from five countries with chants and hula.
After waiting more than an hour, many of the attendees walked the rest of the distance to the dedication site, located just below the summit at 13,150 feet.
Sandra Dawson, TMT spokeswoman, said a blessing was held at the site but speeches were cancelled after protesters disrupted the event in progress.
“Several dozen people came and they chanted and sang and they talked and we listened and we heard them,” she said.
The event was cut short after it became clear there wasn’t going to be an end to the discussion, Dawson said.
Protesters said they oppose the $1.4 billion project because they see it as a desecration to a sacred mountain.
The TMT, developed by researchers from the United States, Canada, India, China and Japan, will be the ninth optical/infrared telescope on the mountain, prized by astronomers for its clear views of the heavens.
It will be more than 50 meters tall and about 40 percent larger than either of Keck Observatory’s twin 10-meter optical telescopes, currently the world’s largest, though it will also be nearly 10 times more powerful.
Mayor Billy Kenoi, who was scheduled to speak at the groundbreaking, attempted to defuse the situation at the roadblock, but demonstrators refused to back down. Kenoi assured there would be no arrests.
“Akua gave us all this to respect and love each other,” he said.
Said Kaliko Kanaele, of the Royal Order of Kamehameha: “We can’t keep on desecrating.”
Many of those protesting also brought up the issue of Hawaiian sovereignty, arguing the United States is illegally occupying the islands and that the University of Hawaii doesn’t have the right to lease a portion of the mountain to the observatory.
While defiant, the protest was mostly civil, though a couple demonstrators shouted at those trying to attend the groundbreaking.
Dawson said the protest was much bigger than expected though it won’t prevent the project from proceeding. Construction is expected to begin in spring.
“There’s no one there that is not used to some controversy, I’m sure,” she said, adding no one felt physically threatened.
The Office of Mauna Kea Management was initially considering closing Mauna Kea Access Road due to concerns over civil disobedience, said Stephanie Nagata, director.
But it chose to keep it open to maintain access for those not attending the event and for emergency purposes, she said.
Here is one of the videos of the protest:

For earlier posts on this topic:
Thirty Meter Telescope Inching Towards Final Approval
Thirty Meter Telescope Approved on top of Mauna Kea
Update on Mauna Kea: Telescope project given green light
University of Hawaii Regents Approve Plans for TMT on Mauna Kea
Management Plan Approved for Telescopes on Sacred Mauna Kea
Hawaii-Tribune Herald on the recent Mauna Kea lawsuit decision
Mauna Kea Observatories Update Is it good news that Maui is picked as the site for a new Solar telescope?


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