Protests spark over construction of telescope in Hawaii

MAUNA KEA, Hawaii — Singing, chanting and lying on the ground in the road, hundreds of people demonstrated on Monday against the construction of a giant telescope on a mountaintop that some Native Hawaiians consider sacred.

The protests were the latest salvo in a yearslong fight that pits scientific discovery against cultural preservation.

Scientists hope the massive telescope planned for the site, a world-renowned location for astronomy, will help them peer back to the time just after the Big Bang and answer fundamental questions about the universe. But some Native Hawaiians consider the land holy, as a realm of gods and a place of worship.

At about daybreak Monday, a group of kupuna, or elders, sitting in chairs, tied themselves together with rope and blocked the road to the summit of Mauna Kea. Another group of protesters spent the day lying prone on the ground, with their arms shackled under a grate in the road.

The road was officially closed hours after it was essentially blocked by protesters.

After two protest leaders spoke with police, they addressed the crowd and told them anyone who didn’t move would be arrested. The group would move aside, but the elders were expected to remain, protest leaders Kaho’okahi Kanuha and Andre Perez said.

By mid-afternoon, law enforcement hadn’t arrested anybody, saying their priority was installing concrete barriers along a nearby highway to create a buffer between speeding cars and the large numbers of people congregating in the area.

Those on the grate left after being told they wouldn’t be arrested.

Walter Ritte, an activist, said it was difficult lying there for 11 hours. He said protesters’ arms were connected through a series of metal pipes under the grate. Authorities would have had to cut the pipes to remove them, he said.

“It was so cold at 4 o’clock in the morning,” Ritte said. “It was a test of our fortitude. This mountain is like our last stand.”

Telescope opponent Jennifer Leina’ala Sleightholm said she hoped peaceful protests would lead to an end of the project while acknowledging that was an unlikely scenario.

“I think I know what will happen, but what I hope will happen is I hope that they would just turn around and save our kupuna,” she said, using the Hawaiian word for elders.

A puuhonua, or place of refuge set up at the base of Mauna Kea, won’t be swept by authorities, Kanuha and Perez told protesters after consulting with police. Protesters planned to stay overnight.

Groups of activists began gathering on Sunday, singing and praying at the base of the mountain.

Richard Ha, a Native Hawaiian farmer who supports the project, said he’s encouraged that there seems to be some cooperation between protesters and law enforcement.

He said he sympathized with the protesters, but is hopeful construction will begin.

It can be hard for Native Hawaiians to support the telescope because they fear backlash for being perceived as opposing Hawaiian beliefs, he said.