A years-long battle over a $1.4 billion dollar construction project returned to court on Thursday. The showdown brings proponents of the controversial Thirty Meter Telescope, or TMT, face to face again with its strident opponents led by Native Hawaiian organizers. The Hawaiian Supreme Court previously revoked the project’s permit after a series of suits brought by Native Hawaiian activists and their supporters. The new hearings will reconsider this decision, placing the future of the Pacific mountain peak in question once again.
The TMT was first approved in 2013 as a joint scientific endeavor sponsored by American universities and partners from abroad. Originally set to be completed in 2024, the TMT will be one of the largest telescopes ever built, and 10 times more powerful than the Hubble Telescope. Mauna Kea was chosen for its exceptional height — being the highest peak in the Pacific at 13,796 feet — and its year-round visibility of the night sky. The TMT would follow about a dozen smaller telescopes already in the area, and would enable astronomers to see “forming galaxies at the very edge of the observable Universe, near the beginning of time.”
At the same time, however, the site is also held sacred by some Native Hawaiians, and news of the pending project inspired fierce resistance. Native groups and their supporters began organizing against the project soon after its announcement, and staged a dramatic disruption of the project’s groundbreaking ceremony in October 2014. These “Mauna Kea protectors” proceeded to occupy the area around the proposed construction site for over a month.
During the stand-off, protectors frequently employed poetry, song and dance to express their steadfast commitment to native culture and claims on the site. The protests were held in the “spirit of Aloha,” said organizers, emphasizing principles of compassion and peace. The controversy led to several court cases and the eventual suspension of the project in April 2015.
With renewed attention on the TMT case, the ongoing plight of native nations is once again visible in the mainstream. Recent high-profile cases like the Dakota Access Pipeline protests have not only brought the centuries-old issue of First Nations rights to the fore, but also inspired tremendous solidarity among native nations and their supporters. From 2012’s Idle No More to the Keystone XL pipeline protests to the ongoing fight for Mauna Kea, collaboration between nations and allies has been a point of strength among demonstrators.
Some Hawaiians support the project, seeing it as a boon to the Hawaiian economy and a point of prestige. Astronomers continue to push for the site as an unparalleled vantage point for scientific observation. Yet the Mauna Kea protectors are years-deep into their resistance to the project, and remain steadfast in their determination to protect the sacred land. To them, the mountain is seen as an umbilical, a point of connection between the heavens and earth. “The mountain needs to be revered,” Kealoha Pisciotta, president of Mauna Kea Ohana, told Buzzfeed News, “It’s a temple.”
TMT leadership has indicated that, if protests continue, it may begin searching for alternative sites for the project. Michael Bolte, an astronomer from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a proponent of the project, told the New York Times that he was struck by the power of the native resistance. After interacting with a crowd of Mauna Kea protectors, he noted their nonviolent demeanor, saying, “the aloha spirit really exists. In retrospect, we might have underestimated the strength of the sovereignty movement.”