Mauna Kea activists complete three months of blockade

Indigenous activists continue to occupy the main access road and have received massive support from within and outside Hawaii, despite aggressive responses by the government

October 16, 2019 by Peoples Dispatch
Native Hawaiians and allies have been blocking construction on the Thirty Meters Telescope for the past three months. Photo: Ryan Finnerty/Hawaiian Public Radio

On Monday October 16, Hawaii commemorated Discoverers’ Day, an official holiday that marks the arrival of Polynesian peoples into the Hawaiian islands. The same day marked three months since the installation of the blockade of Mauna Kea. Hundreds of native Hawaiian activists and allies continue to block the main access road to the summit of Mauna Kea in order to block construction on the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT).

The day also marked seven weeks of the occupation carried out by students and activists of Bachman Hall, where the main administrative office of the entire University of Hawaii system is located. Their occupation is to reject the construction of the TMT and to stand in solidarity with their community, family members, friends and comrades who are participating in the blockade. The University of Hawaii manages that own the land on which TMT is proposed to be built.

Univeristy of Hawai’i students, faculty, and staff gather in front of the ahu (altar) at Bachman Hall lawn to perform a prayer. Photo: Shafkat Anowar / Ka Leo O Hawai’i

The movement to defend Mauna Kea and to oppose any further desecration of what the natives consider a sacred site, has thrown open complex questions of Hawaiian sovereignty, land rights of the Native people, and the role of the scientific community in being sensitive to Indigenous rights and racial justice.

In the span of over three months, the state government has turned from being indifferent to the movement to taking a legally aggressive stand in support of the telescope. So far, the state government is pursuing cases against 28 protesters, including 9 elders, on charges of trespassing and assault and have also subpoenaed the Office of the Hawaiian Affairs for allegedly supporting the anti-TMT protesters.

Achievements so far

Despite the repressive reaction by the government, the movement has had some small but significant victories. The biggest achievement so far has been that the blockade has effectively stopped construction on the telescope from beginning. A groundswell of support for the movement and the blockade closing down all access to the summit, has made it next to impossible for TMT International Observatory (TIO, the body responsible for building and managing) to go ahead with the construction which was supposed to begin on June 15.

Aerial view of the Mauna Kea blockade. (Photo: Ryan Finnerty/Hawaiian Public Radio)

Meanwhile, there have been several indications of the TIO and the University of Hawaii to reconsider the decision to build the telescope at Mauna Kea, despite having consistently won all legal challenges against it. Recently, the TIO has applied for a permit for the alternative spot for the telescope at La Palma in the Canary Islands, Spain.

Moreover, a partial recognition of the protests was reluctantly granted by the governor David Ige, after weeks of shut down of all 13 observatories at the Mauna Kea. The governor had agreed upon a truce, whereby the current observatories can resume operations with a second temporary access road, with assurances that the organizers will be kept informed about who uses it to prevent TIO from entering Mauna Kea.

A similar victory was achieved by the students of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, who have been occupying the Bachman Hall. The university, which is granted the stewardship of Mauna Kea, effectively managing the use of land, had to conduct several public hearings both across the island of Hawaii, or the Big Island, to hear the grievances of the native Hawaiians.