After more than eight months of nonviolent protests at the base of the Mauna Kea Access Road, the opponents of the Thirty Meter Telescope are pulling out of their camp and telling their supporters to take shelter from the novel coronavirus.
Protest leader Andre Perez said Wednesday the large tents erected last year to serve as a warehouse, kitchen and instructional area at Puu Huluhulu have been removed, and supporters of the protests have been asked to leave.
“Because of the concern for human health and safety, we’ve decided to leave the mauna,” said Perez. “We feel that there’s no imminent threat from TMT, that’s our assessment, and so human health and safety is paramount for us.”
The protesters posted Facebook videos saying that medical professionals have advised them to reduce travel and “stay in our bubbles and remain home” until the coronavirus threat passes.
State officials closed the access road on July 15 to prepare for building of the telescope, but the TMT opponents set up barricades on the road to block construction. Opponents of the $2.4 billion project contend TMT would be a desecration of a mountain that many Hawaiians consider sacred.
For more than five months they protested by dancing hula and camping on the paved, two-lane road. Law enforcement officials arrested 39 protesters on July 17 for obstructing the road during the nonviolent protests, but never made another attempt to clear the road.
That standoff continued until late December, when Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim gave his personal guarantee there would be no attempt to move TMT equipment up the mountain to start construction during January or February.
Kim also pledged there would be no police effort to sweep the protesters off the mountain during that time, and convinced the TMT opponents to move their tents and other equipment off the access road.
The road has been open since then, but TMT construction has not advanced. Perez said perhaps a “couple dozen” people continued to camp by the road each night, and more protest supporters would gather during the daytime for ceremonies and protocol.
Now that the protesters are leaving the mountain entirely it seems possible that TMT could take the opportunity to move ahead with the project, but Perez said that is unlikely in the near future. However, he said there have been no promises made.
“We have not gotten any pledges or any confirmation or agreement with them at all,” he said. However. “we’re confident that they’re not going to move with TMT during this time of pandemic crisis.”
But he added that “there can be no doubt that people will return to the mountain if necessary to oppose TMT and protect the mauna from desecration.”
Scott Ishikawa, spokesman for TMT, said Wednesday that “there are no immediate plans for construction. We hope that everyone remains safe during these times.”
Perez said there are “a few individual camps that are left, and we’re encouraging people to pack up and go home.”
He said he expects there will be some gear left behind by people who cannot immediately retrieve it, “and we fully expect there’s going to be criticism and critique that there’s a bit of a mess there. We are working day in and day out to remove as much as possible.”
“People need to understand, that’s going to take some time,” he said.