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An artist's conception of the TMT.

An artist's conception of the TMT.

Courtesy TMT Observatory Corporation via Wikimedia Commons

In symbolic blow, Native Hawaiian panel withdraws support for world's largest telescope

Trustees of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA)—a state agency established to advocate for Native Hawaiians—voted Thursday to withdraw their support for construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on the summit of the Mauna Kea volcano. The vote follows weeks of protests by Native Hawaiians who say the massive structure would desecrate one of their most holy places. The protests have shut down construction of the telescope, which would be the world’s largest optical telescope if completed.

The vote, which reverses a 2009 decision to endorse the project, strikes a powerful if symbolic blow against a project that, for many Native Hawaiians, has come to symbolize more than a century of assaults against their land, culture, and sovereignty.

“The magnitude of this issue is immense,” said OHA Trustee Dan Ahuna before the vote, adding: “Self-determination is right at our fingertips. We have the opportunity to send a strong message that it is no longer business as usual for Hawaiians.”

Still, many Hawaiian groups felt the vote didn’t go far enough and that the board should have taken the additional step of expressing clear opposition to the project. A vote against taking a stronger stance was met with shouts of “aole!” or “no!” from a standing-room-only crowd.

“We’re disappointed that OHA cannot come out in full support of their people, their constituents, their lahui [nation],” said Andre Perez, an organizer for MANA, one of the Native Hawaiian groups that has opposed the project and sent protesters to Mauna Kea, on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Trustee Peter Apo said that maintaining a more neutral position for the time being would allow them to keep a seat at the negotiating table over the project’s future and advocate for better management of the mountain’s summit as a whole. The board voted 6 to 0 in favor of rescinding support for the project, with one trustee abstaining and two absent.

Opponents of the TMT say its massive size—at 18 stories, it would be the tallest building on the island—would have too great an impact on a fragile ecosystem that already hosts 13 other observatories. They also point to management audits from the 1990s and 2000s that found the summit area was being mismanaged by the University of Hawaii and state government and say those issues should be resolved before any more telescopes are built.

The project was cleared to break ground in March, but telescope managers put construction on hold at the request of Hawaiin political leaders following the arrest of 31 protesters last month.

TMT leaders noted Thursday that OHA’s action would not affect the telescope’s legal right to move forward. “We are naturally disappointed that the Office of Hawaiian Affairs has changed its position on the Thirty Meter Telescope Project,” said Henry Yang, chair of the TMT International Observatory Board, in a written statement. “However, we are by no means discouraged. We must now redouble our commitment to respectfully continuing dialogue and engagement with OHA and all other stakeholders.”

A spokeswoman for Hawaii Governor David Ige (D) said he was continuing to talk with groups on all sides of the issue and look for a way forward.

Thursday’s vote followed a day of emotional testimony at OHA’s offices in Honolulu.

“We have compromised and negotiated 13 times already, and enough is enough,” said testifier Mehana Kihoi. She said scientists did not understand the significance of the mountain to Hawaiian people. “These are people with no sacred place, no connection, no culture,” she said. Kihoi had spent more than 28 days occupying the mountain with other protesters and choked back tears as she described the spiritual experience of being there. “When you place your hands and your bare feet into the soil, you feel that warmth, you feel her heart. At 3 a.m., when … you feel her breath come down and sit on your bones, you know that she is alive.”

She called on trustees to oppose the project: “Money comes and goes; our aina [land] is forever.”

Longtime Native Hawaiian activist Walter Ritte said stopping the TMT was no longer enough and that Hawaiians needed to take a stronger stand on the mismanagement of the mountain summit. “They’ve misused it to the point that they need to get all of those telescopes off Mauna Kea,” he said. “It’s a matter of principle.” 

But not all speakers were in opposition. Mailani Neal, an 18-year-old high school student from the Big Island, said it was her dream to study physics and return to Hawaii to become an astronomer. “As a Hawaiian in support of this project, I felt the need to make my opinions known,” she said. Her voice broke as she spoke about the scientific contributions Hawaii could make to the world, and the important role of astronomy in Hawaiian culture, which relied on stars to navigate the Pacific.

“Stars brought our Hawaiian ancestors to Hawaii, and now we have the opportunity to bring the people of Hawaii to the stars,” she said.

An unscientific, online poll conducted by OHA, which surveyed nearly 8000 people, found that 68% of Native Hawaiians who responded believed that continuing to support the TMT would have a negative effect on OHA's mission. Fifty-seven percent said that if OHA remained neutral it would also have a negative effect, while 67% said taking a stance to oppose the project would have a positive impact on the agency's mission.

Seventy-six percent of Native Hawaiians said the decision would have a large impact on how they viewed OHA and its ability to fulfill its mission.

Acccording to 2013 census figures, about 10% of Hawaii’s population identifies as Native Hawaiian or “other Pacific islander.”