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Defenders of the Mountain

Pasadena Weekly: ‘Protectors’ stand their ground on Mauna Kea and in Pasadena to stop construction of Caltech and company’s Thirty Meter Telescope



In news accounts of April 2’s largely peaceful siege on Mauna Kea Mountain on the Big Island of Hawaii, many of the dozens of people who stood opposed to construction of Thirty Meter Telescope — a $1.4 billion international project spearheaded by Caltech — spoke of themselves as more than mere “protesters.”

Those who ascended the mountain in hopes of blocking constrauction of the facility — at 98.4 feet in diameter the largest telescope in the world, one with 12 times higher resolution than the Hubble Space Telescope, and presumably able to see 13 billion light years into the past — believe Mauna Kea is a sacred site, a home to the souls of ancestors and deities that has been desecrated far too many times already.

Against Caltech — operators of the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory, and along with the University of California a member of the governing board of the California Association for Research in Astronomy, managers of the W.M. Keck Observatory, with its twin 10-meter Keck I and Keck II telescopes — stand the mountain’s “protectors.”

They express their displeasure with what is happening in the “aloha” spirit of love for people and the land, and are not violent. But they nonetheless think of themselves as defenders against those who would further scar the mountain and foul its waters, even for generally benign scientific studies.

The same was true of the roughly 100 people who carried signs and peacefully protested Sunday against the project in front of Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) corporate headquarters on Arroyo Parkway in Pasadena. People came from as far away as Palm Springs and Torrance to participate. The story was covered by ABC Channel 7 News, and replayed several times throughout the day. No arrests were reported.

Among the protesters was Mikilani Young of Arleta, a kumu hula, or hula teacher.

“We need to all work together to support the people on the mountain,” Young says, adding there will be more demonstrations, one planned for the end of April.

Like the 31 people who were arrested three weeks ago for allegedly blocking an access road and refusing to leave the TMT construction site, 28-year-old Hawaiian Studies teacher Joshua Lanakila Mangauil was prepared to be taken into custody this week for his efforts at trying to stop the massive development.

But as of Tuesday, one day after the end of a postponement of construction ordered by Gov. David Ige, and with the numbers of people now protesting against the TMT project only growing, no other arrests had been made by press time, according to TMT officials and a number of news accounts.

“Unlike what’s happening on the mainland, we have had a very open and respectful dialogue with the police officers; open honesty and mutual respect on what has to be done,” Mangauil explains, referring to recent incidents in which ordinary citizens have been shot and killed in confrontations with police in cities across the country, and people have rioted and protested in response.

“Now, if there is anything fishy going on, we call them, ask them what’s going on and ask if there is anything that needs to be done, if we have to adjust,” he says. “We are abiding by the law as best as we can.”

Gone Viral Objections to building TMT on Mauna Kea only seem to be picking up momentum. Last week, an Instagram message featuring a picture of shirtless actor Jason Momoa of “Conan the Barbarian” fame, with the words “#WeAreMaunaKea” written across his chest, went viral.

The “Game of Thrones” star, who was born in Honolulu, has urged his celebrity friends to stand with him, and many have, among them, as recently reported by Huffington Post, fellow Hawaii native Nicole Scherzinger, Momoa’s stepdaughter Zoe Kravitz and actors Ian Somerhalder, Jai Courtney and Jill Wagner. The entertainers, HuffPo reports, are urging their estimated 8 million collective followers to sign a petition calling for a halt to construction of the giant telescope, which is now under way.

And on Friday, Hawaii News Now reported that one of state’s wealthiest people donated $25,000 to the “protectors,” so they may make bail if any more people are arrested, and buy food and other provisions as they continue occupying a portion of the mountain.

“The University of Hawaii has been derelict in its management of Mauna Kea … The numerous deficiencies demand a professional independent review,” 89-year-old Abigail Kawananakoa said, according to the news agency. The university leases property on the mountain and has approved all observatory construction there. Kawananakoa, who is of royal lineage and is referred to as Princess Abigail, is the great granddaughter of James Campbell, one of Hawaii’s richest landowners. She received $250 million when the Campbell Estate dissolved in 2007, the newspaper reported.

Mangauil is even more strident than Kawananakoa in his criticisms of the university’s management of the mountain and what should be done about it.

“The feeling is there should be no further construction on this property, to cease all further construction. The University of Hawaii, all they have done, for the entire history of this mountain, all they have done is taken this conservation land and developed it,” says Mangauil. “First they had two telescopes, then four, then 12 and 13 telescopes, now they want to put one more telescope here. They just keep changing it. That is why we have no trust whatsoever in UH’s word. … This is a culmination of decades of abuse of our sacred mountain.

“This is conservation land and when you up look up there it looks like a city. … It’s disgusting,” says Mangauil.

A Long, Expensive Process The Thirty Meter Telescope Observatory Corp., based on Arroyo Parkway in Pasadena, is a nonprofit organization formed in 2003 by the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy (ACURA), the University of California and Caltech, according to the project’s websites. Institutions in China, India and Japan have signed on as partners and will receive a share of observing time, according to The Associated Press. TMT selected Mauna Kea as the site for the observatory over Chile’s Cerro Armazones mountain in 2009, the AP reported. In May, the TMT International Observatory LLC, also known as TIO, was formed.

Young said the next local demonstration at Caltech will be staged when people connected with the project from Canada visit the campus on April 29.

In response to all the negative public reaction in which the project has become the focal point of social conflict, sparking accusations of insensitivity to cultural practices, religious rights and environmental concerns, a separate website called has been launched by TMT to help explain the project’s scientific and community goals, as well as its local, legislative and judicial history.

For starters, the TMT construction area, according to the new website, contains no archaeological shrines or features. Nor, they say, does it have endangered plants or endangered bugs. And, they insist, there have been no burials there, although burials have been performed there for centuries and TMT critics believe the whole mountain is a heiau, a sacred, blessed place, much as the Gettysburg battlefield and Arlington National Cemetery might be considered.

“TMT understands and is sensitive to the cultural significance of Maunakea. That is why it has engaged the Hawaiian community throughout its seven-year process,” the site states.

In that time, TMT says it has:

• “Consulted with Native Hawaiian groups including Kahu Ku Mauna

• Provided opportunities for community feedback

• Held more than 20 public meetings

• Participated in one-on-one meetings, small and larger group presentations

• Engaged in open dialogue and meaningful discussions with community members and stakeholders

• Supported numerous STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education programs on the island, including robotics, internships, after school and intercession programs, and others”

Also in that time, TMT officials say the project underwent seven separate public reviews and a court hearing last May that allowed TMT to obtain the permits required to build on Mauna Kea, a heavily restricted conservation zone. Also in May, TMT was granted a sublease to build on the mountain by the University of Hawaii after meeting with the Kahu Ku Mauna Council, made up of local Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners. In July, the Hawaii Board of Land and Natural Resources voted to approve the sublease after three public meetings.

The hope is the operation’s $27 million per year basic operating budget will finance 140 jobs. During the construction phase over the next eight to 10 years, the site says TMT hopes to create 300 local and specialized construction jobs. However, some have said such promises have been made in the past by builders of other projects without being kept.

“That said, TMT respects everyone’s personal opinions and right to protest in a peaceful and civil manner,” the site concludes.

What is not mentioned on the site is that a lawsuit filed against the project by Native Hawaiians remains pending with the state’s Intermediate Court of Appeals, AP reports.

The website also does not note the disruption that occurred at the construction site’s Oct. 7 groundbreaking, although it does mention the event. Nor does it directly address a growing “Sovereignty” movement from which has grown a heightened awareness of the history of Native Hawaiians, many of whom, much like Mangauil, consider themselves the subjects of illegal occupation by the United States since the islands’ takeover by US Marines in 1893.

“We are obviously watching it,” says Caltech’s Interim Director of Media Relations Judy Asbury of the situation on Mauna Kea. TMT, Asbury says, ‘has been through all these different review boards in Hawaii, as well as through judicial review. They have been going to court to appeal the ruling and they lost. Now they are appealing it again. And it’s just going to wend its way through the court,” Asbury said. “But they are fully permitted to begin construction.”

Here on the Ground Mangauil has been part of a grassroots movement that’s grown out of TMT’s attempts to set up another observatory on Mauna Kea, one in which between 40 and at times 150 people have been gathering at around the mountain’s 9,000-foot level. The constant presence of people has been a blessing for Mangauil and others, who have been living on the mountain for nearly a month.

“Since the arrests, there have been so many people that we’ve been able to go down the mountain, take a break, travel around and do what we need to do,” he says. “But there have been people here 24/7 for the past three weeks now.”

Kamana Kapele, who lives near the base of the mountain, also witnessed the arrests made on April 2. He shares Mangauil’s sentiment that no development should be allowed there.

“We’re for not building it at all,” says the 57-year-old Kapele, who believes people must know both the environmental concerns as well as the political history of Hawaii’s development under American rule.

“For us, the people of Hawaii, the stand is to say no more. This is enough. It’s already affected the pristine environment, not to mention our religious practices and how the mountain should be treated,” Kapele says. “For us, it’s all one and the same. We have spirituality, we have cultural practices and we have political conditions that for us cannot be separated.”

“We are not against the science. The science is amazing. It brings a lot of knowledge, but at what cost?” asked Mangauil.

“This mountain is the heart of the people, the epicenter of Hawaiian culture and the Hawaiian people and it plays a critical role in our environment, so, not here. You can find another place. This place has already suffered enough. The people have already endured enough.”

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