TMT Demonstrators, Gaining High-Profile Support, Remain Committed to Protecting Sacred Land on Mauna Kea

Mauna Kea protest

Protests have bookended the Continental U.S. for the past week or two, with the islands of Puerto Rico and Hawai’I (the “Big Island”) serving as forums for their citizens to organize against their leadership. In Hawai’i, Native Hawaiian activists and their allies have been demonstrating against the construction of TMT, the thirty-meter telescope on the Mauna Kea volcano. The volcano of Mauna Kea is the most sacred site on Hawai’i, but as the highest and most remote point on the island is consequently the most attractive site for what would be one of the most powerful telescopes in the world. 

The TMT protests have thus far been peaceful, though over 30 kupuna — the term used to describe Native Hawaiian elders — were arrested earlier this month for blocking access to the site by laying their bodies on the road. The footage of the arrests expressed the complicated and opposing forces at play: indigenous processes versus colonial systems, contemplation, and accountability versus unchecked progress. Hawai’i Governor David Ige signed an emergency declaration shortly after the arrests, making it easier for law enforcement to break up the demonstration and raising tensions over the future of the TMT protests. Right now, it seems that the two sides are at an impasse.  

Protesters at Mauna Kea BELatina

Lest we oversimplify the interests of the demonstrators, Kaniela Ing, a former State Representative contextualized the demonstrations to The Intercept. “What I keep hearing is, ‘It’s just a telescope, it’s not a pipeline’ — no. This is an 18-story massive structure that has a footprint of at least six football fields in a county that only allows 6-story buildings. And it’s in a conservation district.” He characterized the construction of TMT as a “dangerous precedent” both in relation to the interests of the environment and to the Native Hawaiians who have seen their homeland transformed by unsustainable development. 

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson offered his support for the TMT demonstrators on Wednesday, flying into the state and meeting with the kupuna to participate in the dialogue. Johnson, who is Samoan, spent parts of his childhood in Honolulu. He’s currently producing a film about King Kamehameha the Great, a warrior who, after much bloodshed, united the disparate islands of Hawai’I in the early 19th century. 

Johnson was deeply moved by his visit to the TMT site. “The world is watching, and the world is saying we should take a pause and this is where care and decency and love and respect, not only for culture but for humanity really come into play,” he told reporters. “I realized as I was leaving it is much more than a telescope, it is people who have so much pride and are willing to sacrifice everything they have to protect something that is so incredibly sacred to them.”

Jason Momoa, a Honolulu native who also spent part of his childhood in the state, posted a shout out to Johnson on Instagram, calling him an “awesome human” for leveraging his platform of over 150 million followers. “Bringing eyes and awareness to protectors on the mauna [sic] it’s not about science it’s about respect for our culture I appreciate you Dwayne I’m very happy you’re [sic] there to support I wish I was there too.” Momoa has been busy working on initiatives to reduce plastic pollution in the ocean but has been actively sharing TMT news and showing his live for the demonstrators since they first began their protests. Democratic presidential nominees Tulsi Gabbard and Elizabeth Warren have also released statements expressing their support to the TMT demonstrators.

In hopes that there will be a breakthrough and end the demonstrations, Governor Ige has deferred negotiations of TMT to Hawai’i Mayor Harry Kim. Thousands of demonstrators remain at the site to disrupt the construction of TMT, as the future of Mauna Kea is still in limbo.