Kathy DeMello, 59, remembers when the first telescope was built on Mauna Kea.
It was 1968, and her father was one of the construction workers. “It was exciting,” said DeMello, a third-generation Portuguese immigrant to the Big Island of Hawaii.
On Saturday, DeMello sat at a market in Hilo selling handmade jewelry and chatting with neighbors and friends. Like many in the community, she doesn’t understand the staunch opposition to the Thirty Meter Telescope that’s erupted over the last few weeks.
“This is education. It’s jobs,” she said.
That means a lot to DeMello: Most of her family has moved away because the Big Island’s tight economy means that there aren’t many jobs available.
Her daughter is in North Carolina, her brother is in Georgia and her sister is in Virginia. Only one of her sisters still lives on the Big Island. Although her family misses home, there’s little they can do about it other than buy expensive tickets to visit occasionally.
That’s why DeMello is glad that the astronomy industry is growing in Hilo, a small town on the east side of Hawaii’s biggest island.
“To me, if it’s done right, there is no disrespect,” DeMello said of the construction of the new telescope. “Only goodness.”
“You get national news, you get five minutes of fame, you get arrested — what does that accomplish?” — Arlene Hussey, Big Island resident
But many other Big Island residents believe that the telescope isn’t being “done right,” or shouldn’t be built at all. A group of activists established a camp 9,000 feet up Mauna Kea two weeks ago, blocking construction crews to draw attention to the sacredness of the mountain in Hawaiian tradition and their concerns over the project’s environmental impact.
The protests have attracted international attention, with thousands of people posting to social media and hundreds donating money to the cause. “Protect all sacred places” is a common refrain, drawing upon the shared injustice of colonization and the plight of indigenous people worldwide.
In Hilo, just 90 minutes by car from the mountain, opinions are diverse. Many people respect the protesters but wonder what they are trying to achieve. Some support the effort enthusiastically, and say there are unanswered questions about the project’s environmental impact. Still others, like DeMello, look at the young activists with bemusement, and suggest they go to school to become astronomers.
When protesters call for the removal of all the telescopes from the mountain, many residents wonder: What about the jobs?
Most people know each other in Hilo, a town on the east side of Hawaii Island with a population of only about 43,000.
Two centuries ago, Hilo became a thriving center of the sugar industry. But the last sugar plantation closed in 1994, leaving the town grasping for a new economic driver.
Today, many residents work at the University of Hawaii’s Hilo campus and in agriculture. Unlike other parts of the state, tourism isn’t a dominant industry because of the rainy weather and relative lack of beaches.
“To me, if it’s done right, there is no disrespect. Only goodness.” — Kathy DeMello, Big Island resident
The median household income in Hilo is $53,304, about $15,000 lower than the state median. More than 16 percent of residents live below the poverty level, compared to a state rate of about 11 percent. The unemployment rate on the Big Island is higher than any other except for Molokai, according to the latest state data from January.
Driving through downtown Hilo, the one- and two-story plantation-style buildings are colorful and historic, but dilapidated exteriors betray a lack of upkeep.
Some residents see astronomy as a promising, high-paying option. The Hawaii Island Economic Development Board boasts that astronomy is the county’s “leading technology industry.” Expanding to 13 observatories since the first was built in 1968, the industry generated over $90 million in local business sales for the island in 2012, as well as 800 jobs, according to a 2014 University of Hawaii study.
In addition to employing scientists and others, the observatories have turned the mountain into more of a visitor attraction. “Imagine yourself … Standing atop a giant volcano, miles above the tropical Pacific,” reads a stack of brochures by the lei stand at the Hilo airport.
At dusk, tour buses bring loads of visitors to the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Center 9,000 feet up the mountain for hiking, watching the sunset and star-gazing. Tourists also venture to Imiloa, a self-decribed astronomy center in Hilo where they can use computers to view the night sky from Mauna Kea and learn about how Pacific Islanders navigate using the stars.
The $28 million, 40,000-square-foot center includes exhibits and a planetarium that educate local schoolchildren and visitors about astronomy from the perspective of both modern science and traditional Hawaiian knowledge.
Miles Yoshioka, executive officer at the Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce, said the idea for the first telescope on Mauna Kea came about after a tidal wave destroyed much of downtown Hilo back in 1960.
Seeking a way to help Hilo’s economy recover, the chamber’s then-executive secretary, Mitsuo Akeyama, discussed the possibility of adding an observatory on Mauna Kea with astronomer Harold Ellis. Both eventually lobbied the Legislature and then-Gov. John A. Burns to set aside money to build a road up the mountain.
Yoshioka said that if the observatories on Mauna Kea were decommissioned— as some activists hope will happen — the effects would reverberate through the region.
“What (industry) do we have to replace it? I don’t know,” he said. “Agriculture can only take us so far.”
Lanakila Manguil is one of the spokesmen for activists opposed to the Thirty Meter Telescope.
The 28-year-old Hawaiian Studies teacher argues that the cultural and environmental impacts of the project outweigh any economic benefits.
“You’re talking about the epicenter of our spiritual beliefs, our highest point. This is our everything.” — Lanakila Manguil, Big Island schoolteacher
Growing up on the Hamakua Coast of the Big Island, he was raised in the shadow of the mountain and holds Mauna Kea sacred because it’s at the center of Hawaiian beliefs about creation.
In traditional knowledge, the sky god Wakea mated with the earth goddess Papa and from there came all of life. Even today, some Hawaiians bring the umbilical cords of their babies to a lake on the mountain in the belief that it will protect their keiki.
That significance alone is enough for Manguil to want Mauna Kea’s environment to remain pristine.
“You’re talking about the epicenter of our spiritual beliefs, our highest point,” he said. “This is our everything.”
He also doubts the validity of economic arguments for allowing observatories at the top of Mauna Kea.
“Do we see a healthy economy?” he asked, “Is one more (telescope) supposed to solve all those problems? I don’t think so.”
The Thirty Meter Telescope is expected to generate 300 temporary construction jobs and 140 permanent jobs.
Manguil is skeptical about how many of those jobs will go to current Hawaii Island residents. A TMT representative said she didn’t yet know how many jobs would go to current residents.
Manguil feels compassion for the construction workers who are working to feed their families, but he argued that the county should pursue more sustainable industries such as green energy jobs.
“We need to open up our minds to bigger and better opportunities that are beneficial for our whole world, not just our immediate paycheck,” he said.
Whether or not residents agree with the Mauna Kea demonstration, it’s become the talk of the town. And the action is not just taking place on the mountain: During the Merrie Monarch hula competition last week, anti-telescope activists waved signs at the airport and on roadsides to get people on board with the cause.
Adam Kay even heard about the protests while out surfing on Saturday morning, when another surfer said he planned to wave anti-TMT signs later in the day. Kay, a maintenance worker who has lived in Hilo since he was 14, isn’t sure where he falls on the issue. Just the other day, he asked his nephew, who is in his early 20s, why he had posted an anti-TMT sign in his yard.
His nephew explained that the telescope would be 18 stories high and require excavating 20 feet below ground. He told his uncle that his generation was trying to reconnect with Hawaiian traditions and regain its cultural identity, including protecting sacred places like Mauna Kea.
That impresses Kay, who is Hawaiian but doesn’t speak the language and understands the feeling of losing one’s culture. He thinks it would be better if the telescope replaced an old structure instead of disturbing new ground. Still, when he hears of the new observatory, he thinks of his two kids, 9 and 12, and hopes that one day they could work there.
“The folks that are in college now, they were in the ninth grade when we started. They were not in the room, they had no idea what took place.” — Richard Ha, Big Island resident
His two older children moved to the mainland because they couldn’t find jobs. “I don’t know my four grandsons,” he said.
A lot of his friends and family have moved away since the plantation closed in 1994. He wants his two youngest kids to go to college, and hopes that will help them find jobs closer to home.
Richard Ha, a Big Island resident and banana farmer, thinks a lot of Big Island residents feel similar to Kay. Ha, who is also Hawaiian, thinks that members of a younger generation are driving the activism because they weren’t around when he and others were testifying about the proposal. While there are many older people who support the blockade, the leaders of the effort tend to be in their 20s, and college campus protests abound.
“It’s not like we didn’t do anything,” Ha said, recalling the public hearings he attended to share his concerns about the telescope’s impacts. “The folks that are in college now, they were in the ninth grade when we started. They were not in the room, they had no idea what took place.”
From Ha’s perspective, many Big Island residents don’t want to appear disrespectful to Hawaiians but are afraid of losing educational opportunities for their kids if the telescope isn’t built.
TMT has pledged to spend a million dollars a year to help Big Island students learn science, technology, engineering and math. The organization has already given half a million dollars to more than 30 classrooms on the Big Island. The organization is also launching a separate program to help get college students and others into the workforce.
That sounds good to Arlene Hussey, who runs the farmers market in Laupahoehoe. Hussey, who moved to Hilo in 1963, remembers taking part in protests against the development of the hotels Hapuna Prince and Mauna Lani when she was younger. But she said she hasn’t heard prominent Hawaiian elders on the Big Island speak out about the Thirty Meter Telescope, which makes her skeptical of the blockade.
“When I read their website all I see is anger and frustration,” she said of the activists. “You get national news, you get five minutes of fame, you get arrested — what does that accomplish?”
• Civil Beat reporter Jessica Terrell contributed to this story.