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Activists block road in protests over Hawaii telescope location

Hundreds of demonstrators gathered Monday at the base of Hawaii's tallest mountain to protest the construction of a massive telescope on land that some Native Hawaiians consider sacred. A group of kupuna, or elders, tied themselves together with rope at the road to the summit of Mauna Kea.

Scientists hope the massive telescope they planned for the site — a world-renowned location for astronomy — will help them peer back to the time just after the Big Bang and answer fundamental questions about the universe. But some Native Hawaiians consider the land holy, as a realm of gods and a place of worship.

Groups of activists sang and prayed at the base of the mountain on Sunday afternoon. They declared the area, which is well off the highway at the intersection of the mountain's access road, a place of refuge and safety.

Giant Telescope
Demonstrators gather to block a road at the base of Hawaii's tallest mountain, Monday, July 15, 2019, in Mauna Kea, Hawaii, to protest the construction of a giant telescope on land that some Native Hawaiians consider sacred. Caleb Jones / AP

"This is Hawaiian homelands," said Kealoha Pisciotta, one of the protest leaders. "We're clearly out of their way, we're not obstructing anything, everyone is in ceremony."

According to the University of Hawaii, ancient Hawaiians considered the location kapu, or forbidden. Only the highest-ranking chiefs and priests were allowed to make the long trek to Mauna Kea's summit above the clouds.

Today, the university leases the land at the summit from the state for existing telescopes and observatories on the summit. A road built for telescope access decades ago is used by thousands of tourists and locals each year, including Native Hawaiians who go there to pray.

Scientists selected Mauna Kea in 2009 after a five-year, worldwide search for the ideal site. Protests disrupted a groundbreaking and Hawaiian blessing ceremony at the site in 2014. After that, the demonstrations intensified.

Construction stopped in April 2015 after protesters were arrested for blocking the work. A second attempt to restart construction a few months later ended with more arrests and crews pulling back.

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the 18-story telescope last October, though officials acknowledged the construction period would still be intense, Hawaii News Now reported.

Supporters of the $1.4 billion giant telescope say the cutting-edge instrument will not only make important scientific discoveries but bring educational and economic opportunities to Hawaii. The telescope's primary mirror would measure 98 feet in diameter. It would be three times as wide as the world's largest existing visible-light telescope, with nine times more area.

Gov. David Ige said unarmed National Guard units will be used to transport personnel and supplies and enforce road closures, but they will not be used in a law enforcement capacity during planned protests.

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