HONOLULU, Hawaii — The Hawaii Board of Land and Natural Resources voted 5-2 on Thursday to grant a construction permit for a massive telescope on a mountain many Native Hawaiians believe to be sacred.
The $1.4 billion Thirty-Meter Telescope has been a source of controversy, with supporters arguing its scientific benefits and opponents protesting its planned construction on Mauna Kea, a mountain considered sacred in Native Hawaiian culture.
“This was one of the most difficult decisions this Board has ever made,” Suzanne Case, chair of the board and of the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources, said in a statement. “The members greatly respected and considered the concerns raised by those opposed to the construction of the Thirty-Meter Telescope at the Mauna Kea Science Reserve.”
Plans for the telescope date back to 2009, when scientists with the TMT Observatory Corporation selected Mauna Kea as the ideal site for what builders say “will likely revolutionize our understanding of the universe,” according to The Associated Press.
Among TMT’s official partners are the California Institute of Technology, the Department of Science and Technology of India, the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, National Research Council Canada and the University of California.
When complete, the Thirty Meter Telescope, better known as TMT, will allow astronomers to peer some 13 billion light years away and explore the very edge of the observable universe, near the beginning of time. Scientists also expect it will help answer humanity’s deepest question: “Are we alone in the universe?”
TMT project associate director Michael Bolte, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, previously told HuffPost that the universe is “unimaginably vast,” but he has no doubt that TMT and other giant telescopes now being developed will allow astronomers to break into a new realm of discovery and study objects never seen before.
“I think we’re going to move into this next golden age of astronomy, to tell you the truth,” he said.
But protesters opposed to the large-scale project on cultural grounds blocked attempts to start construction after an initial permit was granted in 2011. They disrupted a groundbreaking again in 2014, and the following year more than 30 protesters were arrested for interference. The Hawaii Supreme Court then invalidated the permit, and the project returned to square one.
The project’s builders applied for a new permit in 2016. In July, a judge overseeing the permit hearings recommended to the board that they approve the permit.
Supporters of the project have argued that the telescope will provide jobs for Hawaiian workers. TMT will also be required to allot $1 million each year for college scholarships for Native Hawaiians. But activists have staged dozens of protests over the decades against construction on Mauna Kea and in recent years against the telescope, specifically, raising larger concerns about protections for indigenous cultures.
Kahookahi Kanuha, a Native Hawaiian who was arrested twice during previous standoffs atop the mountain, told HuffPost that while Thursday’s decision came as little surprise, that didn’t make it any less disappointing for those who have fought for years to stop construction on the massive project.
Kanuha said he and other TMT opponents gave the state another chance to do what is right.
“Again, they failed miserably,” and ignored Native Hawaiians’ voices, he said.
Lanakila Manguil, an activist who’s been protesting against TMT for years, told HuffPost that the battle to keep the telescope off the sacred mountain is not only a fight for Native Hawaiian cultural beliefs, but also for conserving the unique natural environment of the mountain’s summit, which is designated conservation land.
“We are not anti-science or astronomy,” Manguil said of the activists opposing the telescope. “It’s about construction, development and industrial-sized work happening in conservation lands and particularly very sacred lands to our people.”
He added, “If you’re moving and bulldozing, that is damage.”
In a post to Facebook, TMT said “it has been a long journey to get here” and it remains “committed to advancing science while benefiting the greater Hawaii community.”
“TMT is committed to respecting the long history and cultural significance of Maunakea to the Hawaiian people, and we are grateful that this process has allowed everyone the opportunity to be heard,” it said.
Measured from its base to its summit, Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain in the world at roughly 32,000 feet. The site is already home to the world’s largest astronomical observatory thanks to the dry, clean air at the summit, which rises 13,796 feet above sea level, and the mountain’s distance from light pollution. Telescopes already on Mauna Kea are able to view the faintest galaxies.
Many Native Hawaiians believe the mountain, which houses burial sites, to be the origination point of the Hawaiian islands. Native Hawaiians have also been known to bury their umbilical cords on the mountain as a way of connecting themselves back to the sacred land.
Native Hawaiian cultural practices and beliefs are deeply embedded with taking care of the natural elements of their land, according to Manguil, and he sees the construction of the telescope as an attack on indigenous people.
“It’s extremely frustrating. You really get that sense of that institutionalized racism. There’s no sense and care of indigenous knowledge,” he said.
“When indigenous people are no longer a part of their natural environment, or are taken out of that equation, the natural environment suffers.”
In a statement posted to Twitter on Thursday, Hawaiian Gov. David Inge applauded the apparent resolution of what he called a “complex journey.”
But for Kanuha and other Native Hawaiians, the fight isn’t over.
The activist said he plans to join others near the summit of Mauna Kea on Friday. He said he expects the company behind the telescope will move quickly to begin construction, and that protests and arrests will follow.
“They’ve given us no choice but to resist and fight back, peacefully,” he said.