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Hawaii Gov. Halts Construction Of Giant Telescope In Clash Over Sacred Land

Gov. David Ige announced Tuesday a temporary halt to the construction on Hawaii's summit of what will become the world's largest telescope.

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Hawaii Governor David Ige announced on Tuesday a temporary halt to construction of the world's largest telescope atop Hawaii's summit Mauna Kea, which has been the location of a growing number of protests by Native Hawaiians and activists who oppose building on land they consider sacred.

The governor said Tuesday in a statement that he has been discussing the issue with interest groups, who agreed to put the project on hold for at least a week.

"We know how sacred Mauna Kea is and also how significant the mountain is for scientific research," the governor's Chief of Staff, Mike McCartney, said Tuesday. "We look forward to peaceful dialog in order to find common ground in the days to come."

The governor's decision comes less than a week after 12 people were arrested by Hawaii County Police for blocking the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope.

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The decision to halt the construction of the telescope is just the latest in an ongoing conflict between an indigenous movement and astronomers.

In the late 1960s, the telescopes started being built on Mauna Kea after the state's Land and Natural Resources board issued a lease for the University of Hawaii. Over the next three decades, more than a dozen telescopes were constructed.

Mauna Kea is touted as the ideal place for star-gazing, as it is situated on one of the most geographically isolated islands in the world and at almost 14,000 feet high is the tallest point in the Pacific.

Astronomers look to the sky in hopes of answering humankind's biggest questions: "Why are we here? What's the origin of life?"

The Hawaiians found answers to these questions on Mauna Kea — where they believe earth mother Papahanaumoku and the sky father Wakea created the Hawaiian islands.

The summit is also home to a unique and fragile ecosystem, where the threatened wekiu bug resides, which has already been impacted by development.

When the telescopes were first built, there was little to no discussion with Hawaiians about their construction. Since the 1960s, a Hawaiian movement has emerged with a strong political voice speaking up for the preservation of their culture.

Scientists say the Thirty Meter Telescope will be the most powerful in the world, capable of looking back 13 billion light-years.

The Thirty Meter Telescope builds off the technology of the Keck observatory, twin telescopes that were built atop the mountain in the 1990s, but it will be even bigger.

The idea for the $1.4 billion telescope, originally nicknamed the California Extremely Large Telescope, was first introduced in 2000 by the University of California, Santa Barbara.

The announcement was met with disapproval by some in Hawaii, who said it was another example of astronomers pushing forward plans without approval from the community.

Several legal attempts have been raised to challenge the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope and have slowed the process, as it has been over 10 years since the telescope was first proposed.

The plans were approved in 2013 by the Department of Land and Natural Resources, according to the AP. The telescope is expected to be completed by 2022 and is funded by the University of California, Caltech, and astronomy groups from Canada, Japan, India, and China, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Activists hope to reach the Supreme Court of Hawaii with an appeal of the decision allowing construction of the site and say that building the telescope before the courts resolve the issue will cause permanent damage, NBC News reported.

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The most recent protests started in October last year at the groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope.

The ceremony was ultimately canceled because of the protesters, who disrupted access to the summit, the Hawaii Tribune Herald reported.

After the snow melted in March, construction was set to resume, but again protesters came en masse to block the roadways.

The arrests on Mauna Kea were an emotional event for the community on the Big Island, where less than 200,000 people live.

On April 2, a dozen protesters were arrested by Hawaii County Police for blocking construction vehicles from using roadways to the summit.

The Department of Land and Natural Resources arrested another 11 people, who were at the construction site on the summit, and 8 more who were obstructing the road, according to a statement from DLNR's Interim Chairperson Carty Chang.

Those arrested by the county police were released after they each posted a $250 bail.

"Earlier in the week, police were in communication with protesters opposed to the telescope, informing them that they had the right to protest peacefully," Hawaii County Police said in a statement. "At that time, police informed the protesters that anyone who blocked the public road leading to the construction site would have to be arrested."

Images started spreading around social media of officers, many of whom are also Native Hawaiian, hugging protesters before handcuffing them.

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In many ways, the incident was a tipping point, strengthening and spreading the indigenous movement focused on protecting the summit.

Protesters started to gather on neighbor islands, spreading to Oahu, Maui, Kauai, and Molokai. Leaders from other indigenous groups also wrote in support, including Chief Arvol Looking Horse of the Great Sioux Nations.

Governor Ige's announcement to put the project on temporary hold followed.

Kealoha Pisciotta, who worked for the observatories for more than a decade and now is the President of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, a group of practitioners that advocate for the summit, said they are grateful for the Governor's call for a pause, but that the halt should continue until their legal appeal is heard.

"We need a commitment from the Governor or TMT to stop the desecration until our legal appeals can work their way through the courts to the State Supreme Court," Pisciotta said in a statement.

Pisciotta added that activists would continue to gather and hold vigils despite the construction pause.

Bianca Isaki, a board member for KAHEA, a non-profit that works to protect Hawaii's natural and cultural resources, said to BuzzFeed News that they would like to see a community-stakeholder based management vision for Mauna Kea.

"Our hoped-for Mauna Kea would involve a management entity that empowers Hawaiian cultural practitioners, public land trust beneficiaries, and community leaders with real authority to determine the highest and best uses (if any) of the mauna," Isaki said to BuzzFeed News. "This has been lacking."

Isaki added that they hope in the future "Mauna Kea will stand as one of many fronts for the turning back of settler colonial power in Hawaii."

Construction on the summit has not only impacted a site where centuries of cultural and spiritual practices took place, but has also affected the mountain's fragile landscape.

In the early 1990s, the Sierra Club complained of the trash blowing down from the top, where scientists were working with the telescopes. Mauna Kea astronomers largely ignored the complaints, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The trash was not cleaned up until 1995, after the Sierra Club convinced a newspaper to write about the litter problems.

The following year, an entomologist announced that the telescope construction had destroyed critical habitats for the wekiu bug, a tiny creature endemic to Mauna Kea, which is protected from the freezing cold temperatures of the mountain by a unique antifreeze.

In 1998, the state published an audit on management of the land, which showed it had been mismanaged for over 30 years and backed many of the environmentalist and Hawaiian claims.

The audit accused the University of Hawaii of neglecting the resources of the mountain and focusing on building telescopes to improve its astronomy program.

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Jason Momoa, the actor who played Khal Drogo on Game of Thrones, stands in protest on top of Mauna Kea.

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The fight against the telescopes has been a focal point for a growing indigenous movement on the islands.

Hawaiians, activists, environmentalists, cultural practitioners, elders, and students have all come together to stand against the construction on Mauna Kea.

Since the arrests, the protests have continued to grow with activists sleeping on the freezing cold summit all night, forming a human blockade to stop traffic from reaching the construction site, according to Hawaii News Now.

The current movement has grown largely though social media. Jason Momoa, who is Native Hawaiian, has attended protests and been very vocal about the issue on Instagram.

Momoa has encouraged other celebrities to participate in the cause, with Zoe Kravitiz, Jill Sanger, and Nicole Scherzinger, posting pictures in support of the movement.

People across the world have been encouraged to post pictures of themselves wearing "We Are Mauna Kea" shirts or other signs in support of the movement.

A petition on Change.org to halt the construction has gained more than 17,000 signatures. A GoFundMe account to support protesters and pay their bail if arrested has also earned more than $17,000 in donations.

Kiowa Gordon, best known for his role in the Twilight saga as Embry Call, also tweeted the petition link to show his support:

https://t.co/b765TkiBOS Mauna Kea I stand with you. Everyone get everyone to sign this petition. #stopTMTconstruction #MaunaKea #a'oleTMT

Gordon is currently in a series with Momoa called The Red Road, which is about conflicts between the Lenape tribe and a nearby town, according to Indian Country Today.

Zoë Kravitz shows her palm with the words "We are Mauna Kea" written in caps:

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Jill Wagner, who hosted Wipeout and appeared in MTV's Teen Wolf, posted a photo of herself with the words "We Are Mauna Kea" scrawled on her wrist.

Help save this beautiful Hawaiian land from big construction!Please sign this petition today! https://t.co/dDrQ8CLFs3

Singer and television host Nicole Scherzinger, who was born in Honolulu and is Native Hawaiian, posted her support on Instagram with the slogan written on a sign.

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Scientists say the Thirty Meter Telescope will be capable of looking back 13 billion light-years. An earlier version of this post misstated how far back in time the telescope will be able to see.

Michelle Broder Van Dyke is a reporter and night editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in Hawaii.

Contact Michelle Broder Van Dyke at michelle@buzzfeed.com.

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