Illustration by Rose Collins

The dormant volcano Mauna Kea resides on the island of Hawai’i. The land is believed to embody a God, but Westerners continue to mirror a long history of colonialism masked as  development. 

Indigenous Hawai’ians are trying to preserve this sacred land as foreign investors and astronomers push to build the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), which would be the largest visible light telescope in the world.

Mauna Kea is kupuna (first born) of Papahāāāāāanaumoku and Wāakea — the Earth Mother and Sky Father. Papahāanaumoku and Wāakea created the islands of Hawai’i. Traditionally, Mauna Kea is referred to as Ka Mauna a Waākea, meaning the Mountain of Waākea. 

Mauna Kea is currently polluted with 12 observatories that date back to 1968. Astronomers and investors continuously argue the TMT is groundbreaking technology that would allow scientists to observe parts of space that have yet to be studied through a visible light telescope. But placing the project on Mauna Kea does more to symbolize western colonization of indigenous lands than an academic  breakthrough. 

Protests around the construction of the TMT are not a new occurrence. Mauna Kea was chosen as the site of the telescope in 2009, but wasn’t given a traditional Hawai’ian blessing ceremony until 2014 — which protestors challenged. 

The project was set to begin construction in 2015. After facing protests and legal battles, it was approved to begin construction in July 2019. Construction has yet to  commence. 

The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) is an associate member of the TMT and is made up of 39 institutions and six international affiliates. UC Santa Cruz is one of these institutions, and has publicly promoted the construction of the TMT. 

In a past interview with City on a Hill Press, former UCSC Chancellor George Blumenthal addressed the protests surrounding the construction of the  telescope.

“I recognize that there are groups within Hawai’i who do regard the mountain as being sacred,” Blumenthal said. “On the other hand, I also think that there’s something sacred about the pursuit of knowledge and so I would weigh the pursuit of knowledge more highly than the cultural issues that some Hawai’ians have raised.”

Dismissing Hawai’ians’ concerns that their sacred land is being invaded as minor “cultural issues” is unacceptable. For someone preaching the sacredness of the pursuit of knowledge, that statement is beyond ignorant and minimizes the beliefs of indigenous Hawai’ians.

UCSC should divest from the project and encourage scientists involved to consider other options. We need to pay attention to our planet before we look to the rest of the universe. Scholarly inquiry won’t help anyone as much as respecting land sovereignty and the environment around us could.

Mauna Kea holds the largest aquifer in Hawai’i. The abundance of water allows the dormant volcano to support vast ecosystems. 

In more than 20 public meetings, protestors suggested taking down an existing telescope on Mauna Kea and replacing it with the TMT to minimize environmental damage and limit infringement of the volcano’s sacredness. 

Instead of considering this suggestion, TMT scientists dodged the compromise and decided to flood out compensation money in the form of scholarships to Indigenous Hawai’ian college students through The Hawai’i Island New Knowledge (THINK) Fund created in 2014. 

Although scholarship money is great publicity for the TMT, it does nothing to address the main spiritual and environmental concerns. Money doesn’t hide the fact that the TMT is infringing on indigenous land.

Alternatives to building the TMT on Mauna Kea involve potentially moving the project to La Palma on the Canary Islands in Spain. The telescope would be built in El Roque de los Muchachos Observatory which currently hosts 12 other telescopes. However, the TMT faces protests and potential litigation from Ecologistas en Acción, a Spanish environmental organization. 

Because telescopes of this scale necessarily infringe upon natural landscapes, the TMT is more than likely to face opposition no matter where it goes. Instead of trying to work around protestors, the TMT members should work with them. 

As an original investor in the TMT project, and as an institution that frequently claims to advocate for the rights of indigenous peoples, UCSC must openly stand up for indigenous  Hawai’ians. 

Scientists have no right constructing objects on land they are not welcome to. UCSC should not be an instigator of the desacralization of Mauna Kea. Its role in the construction of this imperialist symbol is hypocritical for an institution that claims to respect indigenous  sovereignty.