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Probing deep space, exploring the early universe, investigating exoplanets for life. How could something like Hawaii’s Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), with all of that potential, go wrong?

A history of colonialism is complicating the telescope’s high aim. And this episode serves as a reminder to building developers and construction companies—anyone involved with such a complex plan—about why they need to look very carefully at the types of projects they should pursue. Otherwise, overlooking—or outright ignoring—local context, history, and culture can turn what at first seems to be a marquee project into a public relations and brand reputation nightmare.

Protesters in Hawaii and around the world are rallying with the call “We are Mauna Kea,” in reference to the mountain where the telescope is set to be built. Most are gathering on the mountain itself, on the access road to the summit, for the purpose of halting construction of the TMT. Protesters have remained on the road since July 17.

TMT’s project leaders aspire to join the 13 telescopes already operating on the dormant volcano. Mauna Kea has some of the most ideal conditions for astronomical observations in the world—a high elevation, a stable, dry and cold climate, as well as minimal light pollution.

From the TMT team’s perspective, they have thoroughly included the community in their planning efforts. The project’s backers say they have conducted 20 public meetings and have promised significant contributions to Hawaii’s youth—including $1 million a year to support science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education on the island. The team behind the telescope says it has already given over $5 million to its THINK Fund, which supports Hawaii’s schools, students and teachers.

The persistence of protests and their recent growth to a worldwide movement, however, raises the question: When can a corporation, research institution or even an academic community be confident that they have adequately listened to stakeholder communities?

The largest instrument on the mountain

Despite continued opposition from the native Hawaiian community and allies, the TMT’s backers say they will proceed with their plans. As of the beginning of August, nearly 20 percent of the entire project has been completed—much of it in far corners of the world—from Japan to India. The TMT is projected to be the largest observatory on earth when it is completed, with a resolution 12 times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope.

As the project’s organizers continue to build and prepare on the Mauna Kea site, they are also pursing permits for Plan B, the Canary Islands, although conditions won’t be as ideal as Mauna Kea’s summit—and Canary Island environmentalists say that they would seek legal action against the move. 

What TMT has done right

The TMT team has communicated with the local community more comprehensively than any other telescope project previously built on the mountain.

It is also important to note that TMT has chosen a site on the summit that it claims will impact cultural and environmental features as little as possible. Assessments did not find archaeological shrines or features, burials, or endangered plants or insects within the site. The site is also located where the telescope will not be visible from culturally significant areas and where minimal grading is required.

Despite the care and thought put into planning, TMT is missing the bigger picture. Opponents are wondering why another telescope is going on the mountain at all.

Building on a troubled history

Astronomy has claimed the summit. Opponents of yet another Mauna Kea astronomy project point out that it will be located on ceded land from the Hawaiian kingdom that has been held in trust for native Hawaiians. The land is currently a conservation district under the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR). In 1968, though, the DLNR granted the University of Hawaii (UH) a 65-year lease for over 13,000 acres on the summit.

UH was given a permit for one observatory, but others were built subsequently without permits, and were only given permits retroactively, after the public spoke out.

Mismanagement has continued. A video by Kanaeokana—a network for Hawaiian language, culture and education—visualizes a timeline of trouble on Maunak Kea, from sewage, fuel and toxin spills to the failure of UH to adopt rules to manage public activities on the mountain.

Even the state’s governor, David Ige, who recently lifted his protest-related emergency declaration, admitted in a public statement in 2015: “We have in many ways failed the mountain. Whether you see it from a cultural perspective or from a natural resources perspective, we have not done right by a very special place.”

A 1998 audit of management on the mountain reads, in part:

“We found that the University of Hawaii’s management of Mauna Kea Science Reserve is inadequate to ensure the protection of natural resources. Efforts to gather information on the Weiki bug came after damage had already been done. Trash from construction was cleaned up only after concerns were raised by the public. Old testing equipment constructed in the early years of development has not been removed as required by the lease agreement.

“We found that new technology requires the university to change its approach to future development within the Mauna Kea Science Reserve.”

A new telescope—bigger, better and more far-reaching—raises a red flag for native Hawaiians, who have been disputing observatory development since UH’s lease began. The fear is that development on the sacred summit will continue, even escalate, all without the change in approach recommended 20 years ago.

“We have to draw the lines in the sand, say: 'No. No more already,'” telescope opponent Walter Ritte told Hawaii News Now in July. “You already have 13 telescopes, and now you’re going to put a giant one up there. This is the beginning of another Waikiki up our sacred mountain.”

Legally, TMT has no further hurdles toward construction. Last year, the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled in favor of the telescope in a case contesting TMT’s permit over concerns about Mauna Kea management and conservation.

Part of the ruling was that five telescopes will be dismantled and the land be returned to its original state.

Space race over all else

To many, the summit of Mauna Kea looks like a space race over all other concerns.

Paul Coleman, an astronomer and physicist at the University of Hawaii, illustrated this perspective to The Atlantic in 2015. “In modern astronomy, you must go with the biggest telescope you can build to the tallest mountain you can find. That is the defining thing for astronomical growth.”

Astronomers at the institutions building TMT, and elsewhere, are catching onto a perspective shift that must occur for any semblance of harmony to be achieved. Last month, astronomy graduate students from across the country penned an open letter opposing the treatment of peaceful protesters on Mauna Kea.

Others are voicing their opinions on Twitter. “Astronomy is awesome, but it’s not life or death. We can take the time to do things right and set an example,” tweeted Emily Rice, assistant professor of astrophysics at College of Staten Island, CUNY, who did graduate work using the Keck telescope on Mauna Kea.

TMT is an example of a high purpose that can be taken even higher. Brands should watch how TMT responds in the coming months to learn either from its success or failure to change its course. The pursuit of the edges of the observable universe, shared by all people, deserves cultural unity.

Image credit: TMT

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TMT Protesters Put Astronomy, and Developers, on Notice
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Probing outer space, exploring the universe, searching for life beyond Earth. How could a telescope like Hawaii’s TMT, with all of that potential, go wrong?
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