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TMT project’s challengers fear loss of culture

February 20, 2014 - 12:05am

Native Hawaiian practitioner Kalani Flores recognizes Mauna Kea for more than its scenic views and hiking opportunities.

During a trip to the mountain Monday, the Big Island resident stood at the entrance left of the park’s access road. He approached a rock formation, an “ahu,” where it is proper practice to greet the mountain by making an offering to Wakea, the sky father, before entering the premises.

Behind him stood Ku Ching, Hawaiian and fellow petitioner in the case involving the state’s decision to grant a conservation land use permit for the construction of one of the world’s largest optical telescopes on the mountain. Flores, Ching and four other petitioners are arguing the Board of Land and Natural Resources erred when approving the permit to the University of Hawaii at Hilo for the Thirty Meter Telescope project.

With a hearing scheduled for 8 a.m. today in Hilo’s 3rd Circuit Court, Ching and Flores visited the mountain to pay their respects.

Native Hawaiians consider the mountain the center of all life. Within its slopes are stories and lessons passed down from generation to generation. It is also a burial ground for their ancestors. Like many religious or spiritual practices, their holistic approach to the mountain as something sacred is a method of teaching culture, consciousness and values to future generations.

During their stop at a second ahu near the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station, Ching and Flores were joined by two 7-year-olds who were visiting the park that day with their mothers. The keiki took a break from playing to greet their elders and spoke about what Mauna Kea means to them.

“I hear the mountain say ‘Thank you,’” Kanalu Lacy said. “It says, ‘Thank you for talking to me and thank you for giving me love.’”

“I talk to the mountain because the mountains are our kupuna,” Nohealani Mulloy said. “Since they’re our kupuna, it means something to us and it is in our life. We live with the kupuna and the mauna. I feel like I’m here with the gods and I’m praying for them.”

It’s these traditions that Flores fears could be in jeopardy if significant development continues on the mountain.

“It is the most sacred piko of Hawaii,” Flores said. “Hawaii traditions and culture are directly tied to the natural resources. They’re one and one. If you don’t have the place and don’t have the cultural resources, then you lose those aspects and traditions that are directly tied to them.”

Potential environmental damage caused by the development of TMT is one argument the petitioners are making in court. In order for a permit to be granted, the proposed land use has to meet specific criteria. The petitioners are arguing that the 18-story telescope that will sit on 5 acres on the mountain’s northern plateau violates the mandate that states the land use proposal “will not cause substantial adverse impact to existing natural resources within the surrounding area, community or region.”

Flores and the other petitioners contend they’re not opposed to TMT, but are in favor of it being built in a different location in order to protect their cultural rights.

According to a press release, the location was chosen after evaluating both Mauna Kea and Chile’s Cerro Armazones.

“It was clear from all the information we received that both sites were among the best in the world for astronomical research,” said Edward Stone, Caltech’s vice chairman of the TMT board, in a press release. “Each has superb observing conditions and would enable TMT to achieve its full potential of unlocking the mysteries of the universe.”

TMT spokeswoman Sandra Dawson added that the existing telescope facilities were also a factor in the decision.

“Mauna Kea has existing infrastructure (roads, electricity, computer connections, etc.) and … is easier to attract and retain staff in Hawaii,” she said.

According to a legal brief filed on behalf of BLNR, the board determined the project would not negatively impact cultural practitioners since it’s not being built on the mountain’s summit, which is considered to be a scared area for traditional prayers and offerings, and that access to culturally significant locations would not be influenced by the development of the telescope.

But Native Hawaiian practices aren’t limited to the summit. Ching and Flores’ moment of observance Monday occurred near the summit at Puu Poliahu, where sounds coming from nearby telescope facilities affected the rite.

Flores and Ching will head to court today, the same day the University of Hawaii Board of Regents will vote on the sublease agreement between TMT and UH-Hilo in Honolulu.

According to an article published by the Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance, Mauna Kea was set aside in 1961 as part of the ongoing effort to protect Hawaii’s watersheds. Upper regions of the area had been recognized as ecologically significant, culturally sacred and extremely fragile.

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