The protest blocking the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea is now in its 11th week. Hawaii’s state and county officials still claim they can find “a way to move forward,” though there is little evidence such a path exists.
Hawaii Island Mayor Harry Kim, whom Governor David Ige put in charge of the crisis in August, released a proposal that calls for the inclusion of “Native Hawaiian leaders” in future management decisions for the summit. But Kim’s plan fails to address the current situation, and, given that he has no jurisdiction over the summit, his plan is the legal equivalent of fairy dust.
The ku kia‘i mauna, or guardians of the mountain, for their part, have remained steadfast in opposition to the telescope.
After word spread of a possible sweep by law enforcement three weeks ago, the ku kia‘i mauna numbers grew to some 1,500 almost overnight. That had been the (approximate) daily average by week three of the protest, when a tropical storm slimmed the crew to about 300. Now, there are between 250 and 300 people camped out 24-7 in an area that stretches about a quarter of a mile in both directions of the pu‘uhonua, or refuge, at the base of Pu‘u Huluhulu. That’s where the main camp operations are set up with a makeshift kitchen and other facilities, such as a Mauna Medic tent where they treat minor injuries. Although the camp is relatively quiet, another word to describe the atmosphere is prepared.
Rumors swirl almost daily about a possible middle of the night police raid -- and so everyone is on guard.
There is a protocol in place in the event that law enforcement deploys teargas. Each kupuna, or elder, has a kit that includes goggles and a respirator. Aunty Keala is being fitted for one, too. She is wheelchair bound, and one of the 28 kupuna who were arrested on July 17th.
One thing has become abundantly clear. The only way to move the telescope’s construction forward will be by force. It isn’t just that the parties involved are not on the same page, they aren’t even in the same book.
There are two completely different paradigms standing toe to toe on the Mauna Kea access road. One emerges from a culture that measures political and social power as being imbued with what Hawaiians call mana, meaning something spiritual or divine in nature. The other is from a culture that views power, particularly in a settler-colonial place like Hawaii, as monetized, material force.
Money remains the dominant factor in the state’s decision to support the telescope. Constantly referenced in local and national press is the $1.4 to $2 billion price tag for the thirty-meter telescope and disbelief, sometimes bordering on condescension, at Native Hawaiian opposition. Although reasoning for the telescope is cloaked in western notions of science, recently, a deeper incentive for the University of Hawaii, which controls subleases for the summit, has also become clearer.
In an interview with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, UH Vice President for research and innovation, Vassilis Syrmos, expressed concern over National Science Foundation dollars that will go elsewhere without the telescope. According to Syrmos, the university is “expected to be positioned to receive billions for TMT related astronomy research and instrumentation development.”
Kealoha Pisciotta, whose organization Mauna Kea Anaina Hou has stopped every telescope project proposed over the past two decades with legal challenges, is a former telescope operator for the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope. In some ways for her, the thirty meter telescope is deja vu. “When we challenged NASA’s 2003 plan to expand the Keck footprint on the summit with 10 more telescopes, Ed Stone was the executive director of Keck at that time,” she said. “Now, he’s the executive director of the TMT International Observatory.” (The W.M. Keck Observatory, informally known as Keck, is named for William Keck, the founder of Superior Oil.)
Pisciotta’s knowledge of how the astronomy industry functions is almost as extensive as her cultural knowledge.
“My family has been star people since time immemorial,” Pisciotta said. While hanging a map of the summit in her tent, she explained some of Mauna Kea’s alignments in relation to the solstices, equinoxes and other sacred places.
Like many Hawaiians, Pisciotta has genealogical ties to the mountain that involve religious and cultural practices that include traditional astronomy. Indigenous knowledge of the stars is what enabled Pacific Islanders to navigate the largest ocean in the world without any western instruments for millennia.
“They want to build the TMT in the middle of the ring of shrines,” she said, referring to an area where practitioners have always viewed the heavens, and placed their family ahu, or altars, and ho‘okupu or offerings. The “ring” as archeologists call it, demarcates the sacred precinct of what Hawaiians say is “The realm of the gods” and “The holy of holies.” In fact, the state designated the summit as a conservation district largely because of its cultural significance to Hawaiians. But the state giveth and taketh at will, when it comes to how “ceded land” is leased out.
“Mauna Kea is part of the so-called ceded lands,” Pisciotta said. “That means it’s the crown and government land of the Hawaiian Kingdom. That land was never legally transferred to the U.S. They just took it over and called it ceded. It’s supposed to be leased at fair market rate. State and federal law require those lands be used ‘for the betterment of the condition of Native Hawaiians and the general public,’” she said, quoting the Hawaii State Admissions Act. “Well, giving our mauna away for $13 a year is hardly benefiting anyone, except the people profiting from it.”
Native Hawaiians are “legally” entitled to 20 percent of all income generated from those lands. That means the astronomy industry pays a total of $2.60 per year to do business on the Hawaiian people’s most sacred site.
“The state, the university, the pro-TMT people keep talking about TMT money. Stopping this telescope has never been about money for us,” Pisciotta said. “But, okay, let’s talk about money, starting with the billions that people have already made on the mauna since 1968. Does even one-percent of it benefit the people of this island?”
When asked how much money is generated on Mauna Kea, she said, “Just to give you a sense, when I was working up there in 2001, telescope time on the Keck for one day was $120,000.”
It adds up quickly. Mauna Kea’s skies offer an almost 365 day viewing year. A conservative estimate suggests that hundreds of millions is spent annually on the mountain. Even if the Keck hasn’t raised its rate since 2001, which is unlikely, $120K per day applied to, let’s say a 350-day schedule, would be close to a billion dollars over the course of 20 years.
And that money stays in the industry, moving between research institutions, foreign and domestic governments and corporations linked to the various enterprises associated with gazing up at the universe. If there is a trickle down from transactions happening at 14,000 feet, it’s miniscule compared to what observatories are charging.
Pisciotta said, “The Hawaiian people and Hawaii’s taxpayers are subsidizing the astronomy industry. People go on about how the TMT will donate a million dollars a year for education. So what? When was the last time anyone got to pay rent based on what they want to pay? Never, that’s when.”
In a place where housing costs are among the highest in the U.S., her commentary is even more relevant when considering the high levels of poverty among Native Hawaiians. While they make up about 20 percent of the population, Hawaiians represent more than 50 percent of the homeless.
But how much astronomers pay to do research on Mauna Kea is only half of the economic picture. The other side is money that doesn’t show up in the public ledger. It’s what Pisciotta calls “the real business of astronomy.” The secondary use of astronomy has other applications, one of which is military. But not in the way people might imagine.
To further clarify, Pisciotta said, “There are military applications to telescopes on the mauna, but you have to understand that for them, it isn’t just about what they’re observing, it’s about how they observe. Military generals don’t go to astronomy conferences to learn about the stars, they go to look at all the component parts of technology. Each piece is patentable. And each piece is sold to the highest bidder.”
That’s what Syrmos meant when he referenced “research and instrumentation development.” Pisciotta said, “He’s talking about potential billions in that secondary use of astronomy’s technology. That’s how far apart we are. To them, it’s about money. For us, Mauna Kea, or the aina, or the land, in general, is where we Hawaiians go to restore our spirit, our wellbeing. Mauna Kea has enabled us, given us the ability to reclaim and practice that spirituality, that truth.”
Anne Keala Kelly is a filmmaker, journalist and writer. Her articles and op-eds have appeared in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, The Nation, Honolulu Weekly, Honolulu Civil Beat, Hana Hou! Magazine, Big Island Journal, and Indian Country Today. Her broadcast journalism has aired on Free Speech Radio News, Independent Native News, Al Jazeera English, The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, Democracy Now!, The Environment Report, and more. And her film, "Noho Hewa: The Wrongful Occupation of Hawai'i" has received international film festival awards. (annekealakelly.com)