UC should stop funding Mauna Kea telescope construction

People holding signs that read "Protect Mauna Kea"
Nishali Naik/Staff

As members of UC Berkeley’s Indigenous Americas Working Group, we would like to voice our opposition to the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope, or TMT, International Observatory on the sacred land of Mauna Kea, Hawaii. The University of California has been a key partner in developing the TMT project, along with Caltech and other universities in Canada, China, India and Japan. The native Hawaiians stand in staunch opposition to TMT and maintain that the proposed 18-story observatory would cause irreparable harm to their sacred mountain top. We stand in solidarity with their efforts to protect Mauna Kea and urge others to do the same. We call on the UC Berkeley community to consider the unethical and destructive practices being proposed in the name of the advancement of science at Mauna Kea. We advocate for the inclusion of Indigenous voices, methodologies and epistemologies in this project and in science as a whole.

The UC’s support for this type of project undermines our training as scholars at this university. What kind of approach to knowledge production are we teaching, and being taught, when the impacts of our scientific inquiry are directly harming local communities, ignoring Indigenous voices and negating their epistemologies? The TMT website alleges that this project will allow astronomers and astrophysicists to produce the best science. We argue that the best science follows ethical protocols based on respect for and reciprocity with local communities. The best science centers around community voices and is done in partnership with those that are directly impacted. The best science is a science that listens.

Scientific development projects, like the TMT, must be accountable to local peoples and places. Thus far, the project has been pushed forward despite years of Indigenous-led actions to protect the mountain as a sacred site. This dynamic effectively disregards native Hawaiian voices and disrespects their relationship to Mauna Kea. Following native scientist and scholar Dr. Gregory Cajete, we echo that “the importance Native Americans traditionally place on ‘connecting’ with their place is not a romantic notion that is out of step with the times. Instead, it is the quintessential ecological mandate of our time.” Science that is organized through a transnational partnership such as the TMT, bringing together various economically powerful and geopolitically influential countries — without a clear commitment to the people on whose land the work is being done — shares an alarming continuity with colonial approaches to science and technology.

The TMT’s proposal to conduct astronomical research — without considering the astronomical knowledge that native Hawaiians have been practicing on this land for centuries — is disrespectful. It continues to enact a colonial relationship to Indigenous peoples and ways of knowing. In a statement written to endorse and support the March for Science in 2017, a group of Indigenous scientists, educators and leaders came together to advocate for an alternative approach to science.i

They invited the scientific community to participate in collaboration and epistemic expansion — moving from science singular to sciences plural by acknowledging that “science, as concept and process, is translatable into over 500 different Indigenous languages in the U.S. and thousands world-wide. Western science is a powerful approach, but it is not the only one.” They explain that Indigenous science provides a powerful alternative embedded in cultural frameworks of respect and reciprocity toward the earth. Thus, “Indigenous science lies within a worldview where knowledge is coupled to responsibility and human activity is aligned with ecological principles and natural law, rather than against them. We need both ways of knowing if we are to advance knowledge and sustainability.”

In addition to these critiques, the proposed construction of this telescope is in violation of multiple state, local and international laws, and its environmental impacts have not been adequately assessed. In the state of Hawaii, this proposed project “does not meet the eight criteria of state law (HAR 13-5-30) to construct in a conservation district.” Internationally, this project is in direct violation of articles 11, 12, 19, 25, 26, 29 and 32 of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. A 2010 Environmental Impact Statement concluded that the entire project would have “limited incremental” impact, but it failed to acknowledge the cumulative impact of 13 other observatories on the mountain which, since 1970, have already substantially altered the sacred mountain’s geology and habitats, watersheds and native Hawaiian cultural practices.

We call on students, staff, faculty and community to join the efforts to protect Mauna Kea and to collectively demand that the University of California end its partnership with this project. We call on our community to heed the words of Mauna Kea leader Pua Case when she declares “this time we speak for the mountain and the mountain says no.”

Marcelo Garzo Montalvo, Jenni(f)fer Tamayo, Ataya Cesspooch, Ailen Vega, Meredith Palmer, Fantasia Painter and Desiree Valadares are graduate students and members of the Indigenous Americas Working Group.