Activists said they think students should pressure the University of California to divest from the construction of a 30-meter telescope on a sacred Hawaiian site.
The Pacific Islands’ Student Association organized a town hall and teach-in Monday where students spoke with activists about the controversy surrounding the UC’s involvement in the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope in Hawaii.
The telescope, which would allow researchers to look into space at greater distances and higher resolution, is set to be built on the summit of Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain in the world. However, Mauna Kea is a sacred site in Native Hawaiian culture and is believed to be the dwelling place of the god Wākea, according to a brief presentation at the beginning of the town hall.
In late 2007, the UC received a $200 million commitment from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation for the development and construction of TMT on Mauna Kea. In 2014, the UC helped found the TMT International Observatory LLC, the nonprofit spearheading the telescope’s construction.
The UC, as a partner of TMT, currently has representatives serving on TMT International Observatory’s Workforce, Education, Public Outreach and Communications board and its Board of Governors.
Plans for the telescope moved forward after the Hawaii Supreme Court upheld its construction permit in 2018. Native Hawaiians have protested TMT’s construction on Mauna Kea in the past, which sometimes resulted in arrests.
Activists Liko Martin and Laulani Teale encouraged efforts to push the UC and other partnered universities around the world to divest from TMT International Observatory at the town hall.
“We are resisting that destruction, not science,” Teale said. “We are asking science to do better.”
Teale said while the telescope supports scientific research, its construction would desecrate the summit of Mauna Kea, which stands as one of the last major Hawaiian cultural landmarks that have survived colonization.
“There’s an assumption that you can destroy,” Teale said. “Once it’s okay to destroy, then (destruction) becomes a must because that’s where the funding is going to go because quite honestly, the funding doesn’t care about whether a sacred mountain is destroyed or not.”
Martin and Teale have also visited other universities in California, including UC Berkeley and California Institute of Technology, over the past few weeks to discuss indigenous and Native Hawaiian efforts to prevent TMT’s construction.
Uriah Blackwell, a fourth-year earth and environmental science student, said he hoped the activists would remind attendees that the mountain’s sanctity holds great significance for Native Hawaiians.
“It’s easy for us to think about, but for (others), they don’t really know what that truly means, … why it’s called the birthplace of aloha,” Blackwell said. “Maybe give the people a better understanding of the crowd so that when they go home tonight, they have a better viewpoint.”
Karla Thomas-Mamani, the president of PISA, said she thinks UCLA students need to pay more attention to the needs of indigenous peoples in order to more effectively support their efforts to organize.
“As a student who’s not Native Hawaiian but who is an ally who understands indigenous land rights, how can we pride ourselves on being a university that stands for equity, diversity and inclusion when we don’t consider the voices of indigenous peoples?” Thomas-Mamani said.
Claire Doan, a spokesperson for the UC Office of the President, said in an email statement that the UC welcomes discussion concerning this project.
“We appreciate the input of the individuals and groups who have helped shape the evolution of TMT, and will continue working to ensure that the project – in its efforts to advance science and astronomy – will honor and respect the cultures and traditions of Hawaii,” she said.
The telescope will be built on an alternate site in La Palma, Spain if Mauna Kea becomes inaccessible, according to a press release from TMT International Observatory. TMT has involved the Hawaiian community in the planning and construction process and received increasing public support for the project, according to the press release.
TMT added in the press release it believes the project will benefit the Hawaiian community by creating more jobs, supporting local education and promoting scientific discovery.
Thomas-Mamani said PISA plans to submit student testimonies and organize a student protest during the UC Board of Regents meeting in March.
Teale said the upcoming meeting is an opportunity for students to raise their concerns directly to the UC Board of Regents.
“If (the UC Board of Regents) can say no, the whole deal can be off,” Teale said.