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The Heart of a Hawaiian: We Are Mauna Kea
Humanity needs to heed cautionary tales of unethical business practices. “We Are Mauna Kea” is a plea to the world, and its struggle embodies a systemic global issue that affects many communities.

About the Author

  • Lani Cupchoy
    Lani Cupchoy
    Born and raised in Los Angeles and of Mexican-Chinese-Hawaiian ancestry, Lani Cupchoy is a historian-scholar-community advocate and teaches at California State University-Dominguez Hills. She is the only female member of the Montebello Unified School District Board of Education and the first Native Hawaiian to serve on the governing board in its 108 year history.

Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano in Hawaii and home to the world’s largest collection of telescopes. For Hawaiians, Mauna Kea represents a highly sacred summit for religious and ceremonial purposes.

Its slopes contain burials from many families. Some Hawaiians engage there in umbilical cord burying ceremonies to connect themselves to the land, and others practice scattering the cremated remains of loved ones on the mountain. Since March, social media feeds have been inundated with “We Are Mauna Kea” posts in solidarity with the Mauna Kea guardians seeking to protect one of the most sacred summits from the addition of yet another telescope, the Thirty Meter Telescope, to the 12 telescopes currently there.

Approximately 50 years ago, the people of Hawaii agreed to share two of the highest and most sacred summits, Haleakala and Mauna Kea, with a small community of University of Hawaii astronomers, based on the agreement of protection and stewardship of fragile alpine habitats, endemic native species, and sacred cultural landscapes. Recently, Mauna Kea became the target of increasingly aggressive industrial development proposals from some of the world’s wealthiest nations, corporations, and institutions, which has led to an increase in roads, buildings, parking, and larger telescope complexes.

Private security officers stand near 'Road Closed' sign near TMT constructon area near the summit of Mauna Kea. Hawaii  24 june 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Private security officers stand near ‘Road Closed’ sign at the TMT constructon area near the summit of Mauna Kea.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

As a result, natural and cultural resources have been irreplaceably lost, desecrated, and destroyed. In addition, the U.S. Army has announced a proposal to create landing zones for risky high altitude helicopter trainings on Mauna Kea.

The controversial issue is complicated. While some say that the telescope will provide astronomers unparalleled opportunities to advance scientific research with clearer viewing 13 billion light years away, others argue about lack of free access for Hawaiian ceremonies, land lease issues, and potential risks of hazardous chemical spills in the largest freshwater aquifer on the Island of Hawaii that may have real consequences for islanders.

Perhaps this is a case of finding balance between advancing science-technology without further ruining natural and cultural resources. But as the old saying goes,“Give someone an inch, and they take a mile.” Just ask the residents of Mexico who recently lost to super power Wal-Mart, which managed to secure crucial permits and approvals necessary to build a store near the pyramids of Teotihuacan, one of Mexico’s most revered cultural landmarks, by utilizing up to $24 million worth of bribes and payoffs to create a new zoning plan conducive to commercial development, when leaders had originally agreed to limit growth near the pyramids. Chairman of Wal-Mart’s Board of Directors S. Robson Walton’s response to the issue: “Acting with integrity is not a negotiable part of this business.”

Humanity needs to heed cautionary tales of unethical business practices. “We Are Mauna Kea” is a plea to the world, and its struggle embodies a systemic global issue that affects many communities. We can not afford to be passive and assume that someone else will champion a cause for us.