Armed with signs and songs, people protesting the Thirty Meter Telescope that’s set to be built on Mauna Kea took their pleas to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs on Thursday.
The small contingent called on the nine-member Board of Trustees to improve communication and lend its political power and resources to the movement, which has spread far beyond the slopes of the Big Island mountain over the past two weeks.
Andre Perez of MANA, the Movement for Aloha No ka Aina, brought the trustees the voice of Kahoo’okahi Kanuha, one of the organizers of the protest who is still camped out on Mauna Kea with others trying to block construction of the $1.4 billion project.
The 18-story tall telescope — to be constructed with funding from America, Canada, Japan, India and China — would let scientists see 13 billion light-years away. Mauna Kea is one of the best sites in the world for such an observatory, given its altitude, clear air and remoteness.
But many Hawaiians consider Mauna Kea, originally Mauna a Wakea, to be one of the most sacred places in all of Hawaii, once off limits to all but royalty. Some see the TMT project as desecrating a holy site.
Addressing the board by speaker phone, Kanuha said there is no intention to back down or vacate the mountain that Native Hawaiians hold so sacred.
“We are here, day in and day out, sacrificing,” he said. “I’d much rather lose my job than lose our aina.”
Dozens of activists stood watch across the street from the Visitor Information Station near the summit of Mauna Kea all day Thursday.
Due to the moratorium on construction, it was a relatively uneventful day on the mountain compared to last week’s standoff with police that resulted in 31 arrests for trespassing and disobedience after protesters prevented work vehicles from getting to the construction site.
Gov. David Ige called for the one-week “timeout” on Wednesday to facilitate a dialogue among stakeholders.
The demonstrators greeted visitors on the mountain Thursday, including Halau Mohala Ilima dancers and children from a charter school who came to show their support.
Tensions rose when one person who appeared to work for the Thirty Meter Telescope sought to pull out of the Visitor Information Station parking center to drive up the mountain.
Kanuha stopped him to ask whether he would be doing construction work. Protesters temporarily surrounded his car, preventing him from going up the mountain until he agreed that he would respect the moratorium.
The moment underscored the deep distrust held by the activists, some of whom said they don’t believe the construction moratorium would be honored if they don’t constantly stand watch.
Some of the trustees signaled their intent to visit ground zero in the coming days.
OHA Trustee Leina’ala Ahu Isa said she hoped to go this weekend and Trustee Hulu Lindsey said she’d be heading there Friday morning with a hula halau. Other dance troupes, in Hilo for the Merrie Monarch Festival, have already gone up the nearly 14,000-foot mountain to visit with the protesters.
Trustee Colette Machado said the board needs to take some time to gather all the facts and chronology of events involving past OHA decisions, ongoing lawsuits and other actions and then come back to the table — ideally by the board’s next meeting — to consider what course of action should be taken.
“We cannot do this half-ass,” Machado said. “We have to go back to 2009 and track our official positions and also to come up with some positive outcomes.”
Perez said the movement is going to be bigger than Kahoolawe.
In the 1970s, opposition to bombing on Kahoolawe helped unite Hawaiian activists and catalyze a cultural renaissance that revived language, dance and traditional navigation skills.
By 1990, the movement to take back Kahoolawe had become a realistic political cause, culminating with President George H.W. Bush ordering the Navy to stop the bombing.
“This thing is going viral, national, international — Hawaiians coming out of the woodwork,” Perez said.
“All of these issues I’ve been thinking about that separate us — independence, federal recognition, Christian, Hoomana Kahiko, all these different politics — the one thing that’s going to bring us together is aloha aina.”
Moments earlier, Liko Martin brought everyone in the packed board room at Na Lama Kukui Building to their feet as he played “Stand Up” on guitar.
Tension among the trustees became evident later in the morning meeting.
“We need to fix ourselves so we can help fix others,” Vice Chair Dan Ahuna said. “We cannot do anything. I feel helpless.”
When asked by Ahuna what the board’s stance was, Chair Robert Lindsey Jr. said as trustees, they can do what they feel compelled to do individually.
“I just hope that whatever we do we won’t risk the integrity of the organization,” he said. “That’s all I ask.”
Shelley Muneoka of MANA called on the board to start with low-hanging fruit, like improving communication with the public, going after back rent from the 13 other telescopes already atop Mauna Kea and helping to prevent the Thirty Meter Telescope project from being built by opposing a renewal of the 65-year lease that’s up in 2033.
“You are considered the voice of the Hawaiian people,” she said.
“There’s a lot of easy, clear, common sense stuff you guys can do that I don’t think is gonna expend too much political capital on either side for you because I know you’re answering to the state and you’re also answering to beneficiaries.
“That lease that’s coming up in 2033 is a huge opportunity for us to tell them ‘pau already.’”
• Civil Beat reporter Anita Hofschneider contributed to this report.