Why The Thirty Meter Telescope Is So Controversial

First, federal and Hawaiian state law acknowledge that some land belongs to indigenous communities, and those communities decide how the land can be used. The standards for what counts as indigenous land vary, but most favor places of sacred and/or secular importance to a given indigenous group, particularly when that group actively claims it as theirs. Second, Mauna Kea is a site of sacred and secular importance to many native Hawaiians. Those native Hawaiians actively claim it.

Third, while Mauna Kea may fit the legal requirements for being indigenous land, historically it hasn’t been treated that way. Legally, Mauna Kea was made a scientific reserve under the stewardship of the University of Hawaii in 1968.

Fourth, the University of Hawaii has made some mistakes taking care of Mauna Kea. Everyone agrees on that, including the University. UH conducted a comprehensive self-audit in 1998, finding major instances of ecological damage and violation of indigenous rights at Mauna Kea. Most of those issues had been raised long before the audit by indigenous Hawaiians trying to protect their sacred site, and indeed many indigenous Hawaiians are skeptical of further scientific inroads there.

Finally, Mauna Kea is an unbelievably good place to look at the sky. In fact it has everything astronomers dream of: high elevation, clear air, minimal pollution, and a wide flat place on which to spread out and stargaze. The Thirty Meter Telescope would fit there nicely, and so in 2013 the TMT Project chose Mauna Kea as its ideal site, and sought to begin construction immediately. Protesters have been standing in their way, often literally, ever since.

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