Artist’s conception of the Thirty Meter Telescope atop the volcanic peak of Mauna Kea in Hawaii.
Walter Ritte is standing in rain and fog, he can see the Hawaiian flags flying and thousands of people gathered in the lava fields surrounding Mauna Kea, Hawaii’s most sacred volcano.“I was arrested, I returned the same day and I will be here as long as it takes,” he told Postmedia News in a phone interview Monday.The 70-year-old Indigenous activist was one of 35 elders protesting the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Mauna Kea, a mountain considered sacred to Hawaii’s native people, on the island of Hawaii.On Friday, the University of B.C. released a statement calling for the astronomy community to place a 60-day moratorium on construction of the telescope to ensure the rights of Indigenous peoples are respected. The statement came in response to a letter signed by dozens of UBC faculty members advocating for protection of the mountain.On July 25, several dozen UBC faculty members wrote an open letter to the school’s president, Santa Ono, urging the university, which is involved with TMT through its membership in the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy (ACURA), to suspend its involvement with the project.In a statement, Ono said that UBC is asking for the moratorium in light of the university’s engagement and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, their support of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the concerns expressed by Hawaii’s indigenous community.Canada’s Greg Fahlman of the National Research Council, and a board member of TMT, said in a statement Monday that “Canada respects the rights of all people to voice their opinions and will continue to work with partners in the TMT project to find a shared path forward and peacefully engage with Hawaii, Indigenous communities and our international partners.”Controversy over the project has grown since the 35 Hawaiian elders, or kūpuna, were arrested July 17, two days after construction was set to begin.Ritte said the elders, some of whom were in their 80s, others in wheelchairs, stood on the front lines so that young people wouldn’t be arrested: “It was our turn to do what we had to do as elders.” Ritte said some 5,000 people are at the site supporting the protests, including indigenous leaders from Samoa and New Zealand, and non-native Hawaiians.“We have been trying to unite Hawaii for 100 years. This mountain is finally uniting us,” said Ritte. “This is our last stand.”The mountain, said Ritte, has become a symbol of how Indigenous Hawaiians have been mistreated since first contact with Europeans in 1778. Ritte said the loss of the mountain to the proposed 18-storey telescope and observatory is the final straw after years of treaties being ignored, and after Indigenous Hawaiians have welcomed visitors from around the world.“We’ve given up our shorelines to tourism, our farmlands have been poisoned, our people have no housing. Now they want to turn our sacred mountain into Waikiki,” said Ritte.Protesters are urging project planners, an international consortium led by the University of California, to choose an alternate site for the telescope. Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain in the world, measuring over 10,000 metres, although most of it is underwater. The Mauna Kea Science Reserve currently has 13 observatories funded and managed by multiple partners around the globe.The TMT telescope has been mired in controversy and legal battles since it was first approved in 2013. In October 2018, the Supreme Court of Hawaii approved construction.“What is happening to Hawaiians is going to happen to all Indigenous people,” said Ritte. “We have to protect our relationship with the land for future generations. This aloha (the Hawaiian word for love, compassion and mercy) we have with our land is something the whole world needs.”Other Canadian TMT board members, including UBC’s Donald Brooks of ACURA and the University of Victoria’s Kim Venn, didn’t return Postmedia’s email@example.com