The Office of Hawaiian Affairs voted Thursday afternoon to rescind its support for building one of the world’s largest telescopes near the summit of Mauna Kea.
After hearing four hours of testimony, the trustees voted 6-1 in favor of rescinding their 2009 support of the Big Island telescope. However before the vote, they passed an amendment that removed language saying OHA opposed the telescope. Passing that amendment angered some telescope opponents at the board meeting.
"We have the opportunity to send a strong message that it is no longer business as usual for Hawaiians," said trustee Dan Ahuna.
Trustee Peter Apo said rescinding without opposing would allow OHA to remain part of the discussion with the goal of eventual decommissioning of other telescopes already on the mountain.
The builders of the TMT said by rescinding, but not opposing, OHA was taking a neutral stance on the telescope.
They said the action taken Thursday by OHA does not affect TMT’s legal right to move forward with construction.
The $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope project has been facing opposition from those who say building it on Mauna Kea would desecrate sacred land.
Public opposition has been mounting since dozens of protesters blocking the construction site were recently arrested. The company building the telescope agreed to extend a construction moratorium.
"We are naturally disappointed that the Office of Hawaiian Affairs has changed its position on the Thirty Meter Telescope project. However, we are by no means discouraged. We must now redouble our commitment to respectfully continuing dialogue and engagement with OHA and all other stakeholders," said Henry Yang, chairman of the TMT International Observatory Board.
Some opponents of the project in the crowded boardroom expressed disappointment that OHA didn’t take a stronger stance.
Kuuipo Freitas, a master’s degree student in Hawaiian language and literature at the University of Hawaii’s Hilo campus, said she was one of the 31 protesters arrested for what she called protecting sacred land from desecration.
"Standing for the mauna, the biggest gain of all will be the support and trust of the Hawaiian people," she told the board before the vote. "That’s what OHA has been striving for, for years."
The rent and money a telescope foundation has pledged for education is "soft money," she said. "OHA needs to stop bowing down to the dollar and starting bowing down to the mauna."
Sovereignty activist Bumpy Kanahele had urged trustees to take a stand. "We got to stop the TMT, period. Our national sovereignty is on the line."
Through tears, aspiring astronomer Mailani Neal told trustees that as a Native Hawaiian, the telescope will allow her to work in Hawaii one day. The Hawaii Preparatory Academy high school senior skipped school to travel from her home in Kailua-Kona with her parents to testify at the meeting.
While she spoke, some in the audience made negative comments that caught the ire of trustee Colette Machado. "Hilahila to the people in the back," she said, using the Hawaiian term for shame. If people couldn’t be respectful, "get out," she scolded.
At one point during the meeting, when trustees took a recess to seek clarification on the vote, opponents and supporters seemed to put their differences aside by joining hands in a circle to sing "Hawaii Aloha."