While Gov. David Ige lifted the emergency proclamation Tuesday that was intended to get construction started on the embattled Thirty Meter Telescope, the situation on Mauna Kea still has all the elements of a long-term standoff. 

A well-organized encampment of opponents, who call themselves kia’i or protecters, remain gathered at the mountain and have drawn increasingly widespread support, with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and other celebrities visiting the site and progressive politicians like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders weighing in on social media. 

While Ige eased some of the immediate pressure by extending the deadline for starting construction to September 2021, the state has yet to articulate a plan to break the stalemate. And backers of the telescope are still determined to build the $1.4 billion TMT.

Those positions, at least for now, appear irreconcilable.

After nearly a decade of legal fights, the consortium building the TMT now has a permit to start construction. Native Hawaiian protesters, who consider the mountain sacred, are resolute about preventing another telescope on Mauna Kea.

“We are not willing to negotiate. We are not willing to compromise,” one of the protest leaders, Kaho’okahi Kanuha said to the media last week.

Is there a way forward through negotiations?

Civil Beat recently interviewed experts in resolving conflicts, particularly those involving natural resources, “sacred spaces” and large developments, about what strategies negotiators use to bring parties together in similar situations.   

Kia'i, meaning protectors in Hawaiian, make camp at the base of Mauna Kea in an attempt to stop construction of a massive telescope on July 26, 2019. Mauna Kea is sacred to many Native Hawaiians.
Kia’i, meaning guard in Hawaiian, make camp Friday at the base of Mauna Kea in an attempt to stop construction of a massive telescope. Mauna Kea is sacred to many Native Hawaiians. Ronit Fahl/Civil Beat

One essential, cited by all the mediators, is to engage the protesters and other segments of the community directly in negotiations in a way that gives them a real say in crafting potential solutions. Another is a willingness to discuss the broader issues behind the conflict. A third is patience — there are no easy deals to be cut.  

These types of disputes are particularly complex if they involve “sacred lands” like Mauna Kea, said Susan Podziba, of the Boston-based Podziba Public Mediation and the Director of the Sacred Lands Project of the MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program. She has worked on disputes between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as on conflicts involving Alaska Natives and Native Americans. Her 2018 research article explored the unique challenges at Mauna Kea and other areas of resolving these types of conflict.  

“Unlike other tangible interests, sacred land is indivisible,” she said in a recent interview with Civil Beat. “You can’t trade it for something else. You can’t be compensated.”

The biggest gulf, she said, is often the differing world views among the parties, particularly around the concept of what’s sacred. Public officials and project advocates can be gracious and understanding about those concerns, she said, but many aren’t imbued with it in the same way. 

Podziba said that even before you start negotiations, there needs to be an assessment of the broader dynamics and history of  a conflict and agreement reached on the ground rules and the themes and issues that you want resolved. 

There also often needs to be a temporary moratorium on projects before talks are initiated, she said.

“That’s the way we slip a little space into the process,” she said.

Is Timing Ripe For Talks?

The immediate moment isn’t really ripe for negotiations, believes Gregory Chun, executive director of Maunakea Stewardship at the University of Hawaii Hilo, who represents the university on external matters regarding the mountain.

“I think everybody would appreciate a pause at this moment,” said Chun, who helped run a series of community talks on the Big Island in 2015 called Envision Maunakea. “I do think face-to-face is where this needs to go,  I would hope we get to that point.”

What’s needed in the long run, he said, is to hear a broader range of ideas of what it would take to get a solution.

Gov. Ige lifted the emergency order on Mauna Kea Tuesday and extended the deadline to start construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope until September 2021, provided some breathing room as the protests on the mountain go into their third week. ©Sin Ok -stock.adobe.com

The process of trying to get new deliberations started won’t be swift, agreed John Godec, a former director of issues and crisis management for Motorola Corp. who now works as a consultant. He is currently helping negotiate a solution that will allow the Australian mining giant BHP-Billiton and London’s Rio Tinto to develop what is expected to be one of North America’s largest copper mines in Arizona.

When a situation reaches the point where a project is stopped because of protests, that doesn’t necessarily mean finding a pathway to a solution is impossible, Godec said. 

It’s just harder.

The point is not to try to sell opponents on the benefits of a project or convince them that it is good for them, but rather to bring protesters and other segments of the community into the planning.

“People easily mistake public relations with public participation,” said Godec. 

Wider Issues At Play

Intertwined with the TMT fight is the broader push for Hawaiian sovereignty and concerns about the unjust treatment of Hawaii’s native people.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green alluded to that when he visited Mauna Kea during the first days of the protest, citing the need for agrand reconciliation” with Native Hawaiian culture. Part of that might include the state providing stronger support for federal recognition or providing more housing lots for Native Hawaiians, he suggested.

Leaders of the Mauna Kea protests have also brought up disproportionate incarceration of Native Hawaiians, loss of water rights, the long wait list for homesteads and other issues.  

Bruno Verdini, an expert on negotiations at MIT and a visiting professor at Harvard Law School, says disputes such as Mauna Kea are almost always part of larger issues.

“Negotiations seldom exist in a vacuum,” said Verdini. “Stakeholders often benefit from embracing a larger perspective. If they yearn for maneuvering room to effectively resolve a conflict, then fostering a space where other significant issues are brought into the fold, in order to jointly decide what it would mean to win together, is crucial.”

Chun agreed that discussion of those fundamental issues in the Native Hawaii community needs to be part of any talks.

“We’re dealing with 100 years of injustice to the Hawaiian people,” he said. “It’s going to take some time.”

Big Island Mayor Harry Kim, who Ige tasked with helping find a way to break through the impasse at Mauna Kea, did meet with Native Hawaiian leaders on the Big Island recently. But that group didn’t include any of the protesters.

Meanwhile, Kanuha, the protest leader, called the lifting of the emergency declaration a small victory, but said “this doesn’t change very much. Because like we’ve said over and over again, we’re prepared for a long struggle.”

What kind of conditions would be needed to convince all parties of the value of coming to the table?

Verdini, the negotiating expert at MIT, said successful talks require that people on both sides eventually feel that there’s a safe place to discuss their concerns and even shift their positions.

And he added, it requires “both sides to believe that the results of collaboration, through negotiation, will be better than going to the courts … Not only do you need fair outcomes, you need stakeholders to genuinely experience fair, shared processes.”

Even when methods of resolving the dispute are not readily apparent and there seems little that can be offered opponents, Godec said it’s still important to offer people a seat at the table.

“Once you get people engaged in the process, it’s amazing how creative people can be,” he said.

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