WASHINGTON - A group of international astrophysicists and astronomers are speaking out against what they call the "criminalization" of Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) and their allies protesting the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on the summit Mauna Kea on Hawaii's "big island."
In an open letter published on Google, authors call on TMT and the government of Hawaii to stop arresting and charging people and to remove military and law enforcement personnel from the mountain. The letter is signed by 85 graduate students and more than 400 undergraduate students.
"We want to acknowledge the investment that so many colleagues within the astronomy community have made towards the project's completion," the letter reads. "We write today, not to place a value judgment on the future of TMT on Maunakea, but to question the methods by which we are getting the telescope on the mountain in the first place."
Authors also called on the community to consider whether the project is worth "the damage to our relationship with Kanaka Maoli."
Separately, a Change.org petition calling for a halt to the telescope's construction, as of Friday morning, had garnered more than 80,000 signatures. It reads, in part, "This is not just about one mountain in Hawaii. This is a global movement, and the world is watching.
Protesters insist they won't back down and are calling on Hawaii Governor David Ige to rescind an emergency proclamation he issued Wednesday that broadens the state's power to restrict access to Maunakea and clear the way for construction crews.
The proclamation followed the arrest of a group of more than 30 activists who refused to move from the site Wednesday.
'Reserved for the gods'
In February, Lanakila Mangauil, activist and director of the Hawaiian Cultural Center of Hamakua, told VOA why the Kanaka oppose the project so vehemently.
"Because the mountain, this whole area, is actually zoned as conservation land. There are already something like 26 different structures at the summit," he said. "And when you drive up there now, you'd never know you were in a conservation area. It feels like an industrial park."
But it's much more than that, he said. The Kanaka consider the mountain to be sacred.
"It was reserved for the gods."
Further, he said, the protesters - who prefer the use of the term "protectors" - were not given any voice in the decision to construct the TMT.
'Probing time and space'
The University of California and the California Institute of Technology in 2003 began developing the new telescope which they say will allow astronomers an unprecedented view of the universe, perhaps as far back as the Big Bang, more than 13 billion years ago.
One of the hot topics in astronomy now is figuring out what happened between Big Bang and what happened with the first generation of galaxies," Doug Simons, director of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, which has been operating on Mauna Kea since 1979, told VOA in an earlier interview. "These big telescopes will be first opportunity to probe time and space." Simons also said he respects the protesters, explaining that Mauna Kea is part of land that belonged to the Hawaiian Kingdom before it was overthrown in 1893 with support from the U.S.
"And that is an open wound from a very proud internationally-recognized kingdom," Simons said. "That sense of injustice has perpetuated until today."