Spiritual and cultural values are clashing with scientific and economic considerations on the Big Island of Hawaii, where protesters want to stop development of a $1.4 billion observatory called the Thirty Meter Telescope.
The mountain of Mauna Kea rises almost 14,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean, making it popular with astronomers. But the mountain also has religious and cultural importance for native Hawaiians. For two months, protesters have camped out on the mountain to block construction of the 18-story observatory. They consider Mauna Kea sacred; it is the burial grounds for their ancestors.
“It’s also our watershed for the whole island of Hawaii,” Kealoha Pisciotta says. “There are seven aquifers that are fed by the summit of Mauna Kea.”
The people behind the telescope project have vowed to protect the aquifer, and promise to remove all liquid waste from the mountain.
“The Thirty Meter Telescope is, I think, the biggest jump forward in terms of observing capability for exploring the universe that we’ve had going all the way back to the first telescope that Galileo used,” says Mike Bolte, an astronomy professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
The Thirty Meter Telescope International Observatory is a consortium of two universities (University of California and CalTech) and four countries (Canada, Japan, India and China).
Construction of the telescope is expected to create about 300 jobs. About half that many people will staff the observatory once it’s running. And the project has funded a workforce development program to help train engineers and computer specialists.
“That’s to make sure that local folks have the opportunity to get these jobs at the observatory,” Bolte says.
The island of Hawaii is currently dependent on the tourist and military industries. That’s one reason that banana farmer Richard Ha supports the project.
“It’s another industry,” Ha says. “The Thirty Meter Telescope will bring $26 million annually into our economy.”
Young people often have to leave the island to find work. Ha says, “If we could get more employment, the young folks would be able to stay home.”
Earlier this week, protesters chanted outside the headquarters for the Thirty Meter Telescope in Pasadena, California.
Activist Pua Case said the Hawaiian culture is more valuable than the jobs and money the telescope would bring.
“We need to find our people better jobs, that their grandchildren will be proud of them for,” Case says. “Not jobs that have destroyed our Hawaii and our way of life.”
A legal challenge of the project is headed for Hawaii’s Supreme Court.