The Cultural and Economic Costs of Mauna Kea's 30 Meter Telescope

The Cultural and Economic Costs of Mauna Kea's 30 Meter Telescope
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In the days since Native Hawaiians have been sitting in protest on Mauna Kea at the construction site of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), the mounting coverage of these events has only gotten louder and extended further. What is the benefit to the state and to the telescope’s owners, the University of Hawaii and its consortium of partners, in the long-run? It seems especially short-sighted to bring police force -- indeed the Governor has signed an emergency declaration to authorize the use of the National Guard -- against these peaceful, unarmed protestors. The images and videos from Mauna Kea were already bleak this past week; this new escalation by the governor promises to make it worse.

How, then, does a state dependent upon the tourism industry and the image of happy, welcoming natives square with the image of their forceful removal from an important cultural, religious and historical site? Does the estimated $1.4 billion in construction costs for the TMT outweigh the approximately $16 billion annual revenues from the tourism industry? For, there is no Hawaii tourism without Native Hawaiians. It is our songs, our stories, our language, our dance and our aloha that is promoted. People don't like to visit places where other people are marginalized, arrested for their cultural connections and for their connection to their lands.

The management of existing telescopes and access to the summit of Mauna Kea has been a source of ongoing conflict between Native Hawaiians and the University of Hawaii and the State of Hawaii for decades. Construction of earlier telescopes on the mountain heralded 50 years of mismanagement, ecological damage and restricted access to an important cultural, religious and historical site for Native Hawaiians. The newest proposed telescope would dwarf existing ones and would leave a much larger footprint in an environmentally sensitive ecosystem.

While there are other locations that would be suitable for the construction of the telescope, there is no other Mauna Kea. It is unique and it is revered.

Protestors, also known as kia`i mauna or protectors of the mountain, have been broadcasting live updates on social media while local and national media outlets have started to cover this story of trouble in paradise. The sight of some of the most revered and esteemed Native Hawaiian elders being hauled off the mountain in plastic tie bands was appalling to Native Hawaiians everywhere; some of these individuals were in wheelchairs or needed assistance with walking. These elders are the repositories of language, hula, history and cultural practices. They are held in high regard in the Native Hawaiian community. Their arrests have been devastating and the disregard for their sacred site unconscionable.

Randall Akee is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow with the Economic Studies program at Brookings and an Associate Professor at the University of California, Los Angeles in the Department of Public Policy and American Indian Studies.

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