Western officials offered support for research that would be conducted at the advanced Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) atop Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano on the Island of Hawaii, while simultaneously stressing the need for an open dialogue between local governments, Indigenous groups and the international science community.
In an open letter, Sarah Prichard, Acting Vice-President (Research), said Western maintains “its interest in supporting the cutting-edge astronomy research that will be enabled by (the Thirty Meter Telescope).”
She continued, “Western is committed to strengthening relationships with Indigenous Peoples and nurturing an environment of respect, reconciliation and collaboration in our research, education and campus life. These principles guide us in our work here at home, and in our relationships abroad.
“While the potential for scientific advancement offered by the TMT is immeasurable, we also recognize that research should not be pursued at the expense of Indigenous community engagement and recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Moreover, Western does not condone the use of military force or violent action in response to these types of disputes.”
The statement comes at a critical time for the project, one when local governments and Indigenous groups, along with an international science community, have reached an impasse.
Set against the backdrop of paradise, the TMT project has resulted in critical conversations about research, Indigenous rights and a university’s place in the debate that are as relevant here as they are 7,000 kilometres away.
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The Thirty Meter Telescope is a new class of ‘extremely large telescopes’ that allows researchers to see deeper into space and observe cosmic objects with unprecedented sensitivity. With its 30-metre mirror diameter, the telescope will be three times as wide and cover nine times the area of the next largest existing visible-light telescope. Images will be more than 12 times sharper than those from the Hubble Space Telescope.
TMT will provide, according to astronomers, the best look at ‘The Great Beyond’ in human history.
“Some of the questions we are trying to answer with the TMT are the biggest questions,” Physics and Astronomy professor Pauline Barmby explained. “Is there life out there on other planets? How did we get here in the first place? What were the processes that made the universe go from something smooth and uninteresting early on to this lumpy, complicated system? These are the biggest questions you can imagine.”
The project has been a massive undertaking with hundreds of scientists and government officials around the world contributing, including a large Canadian – and Western – contingent.
The project is designed and developed by the TMT International Observatory, a non-profit international partnership between the California Institute of Technology; University of California; National Institutes of Natural Sciences of Japan; National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences; Department of Science and Technology of India; and the National Research Council (Canada).
The Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy (ACURA) has two non-voting representatives on the TMT International Observatory Board of Directors. Western is one of 20 Canadian member-universities of ACURA.
Barmby explained that Canadian participation in large telescope projects, like TMT, was a highly ranked recommendation of the Canadian Astronomical Society’s Long Range Plan, a panel upon which she sits as co-chair. Canada joined the TMT International Observatory partnership in 2014.
Beyond the TMT, Canada has only a handful of international observatory partnerships. In fact, two-thirds of all Canadian telescope partnerships sit on Mauna Kea, including the Canada France Hawaii Telescope and Gemini North Telescope. The third, the Gemini North Telescope, is located in Chile. Canada is also set to be a partner on the James Webb Space Telescope, set to launch in 2021.
TMT is set to be the most important among them – making its fate of great interest to astronomers across Canada.
“We want to do the right thing, the right way,” said Physics and Astronomy professor Stan Metchev, one of three Canadian representatives on the TMT Science Advisory Council. “But it would be detrimental if we lost the mountain. And Canadians stand to lose the most because our resources are so focused there.”
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In the Northern Hemisphere, Mauna Kea is ideal – a high mountain situated next to an ocean where smooth air flows over the water and across the mountain with ease. Twinkling stars are for lovers on the ground; astronomers want calm air and clear skies to gather as much light from the university as possible. Clear skies makes for clear sightlines to the stars. That is why NASA first built on the site 40 years ago.
But these sites are few, far between and rarely free of others who have seen similar value in them.
“Any such mountain, if it is close enough to humanity, may well be somebody’s sacred site,” Barmby said. “Mauna Kea, in particular, of the mountains that have telescopes on them, is probably the one with the strongest connection to a group of people.”
Admittedly, the history of locating telescopes is full of deep indigenous connections, “but, in the past, the amount attention paid to that is probably not what it should have been,” she said.
That is not the case with Mauna Kea today.
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Since the site was selected in July 2009, the TMT project has been a source of controversy. Starting with the halting of its official ground-breaking ceremony by a group of native Hawaiians in October 2014, the world started paying attention a few months later when 31 people were arrested for blockading the roadway to prevent construction crews from beginning their work on April 2, 2015. Those actions also resulted in an unpresented three-week shutdown of all observatories on the mountain.
Thanks, in part, to savvy social media use and the presence of celebrities locking arms with locals, the clashes on the mountain have gained international attention.
The controversy is often portrayed in media in terms of native Hawaiians viewing Mauna Kea as sacred and saying the presence of yet another telescope – there are 13 on the mountain already – will further damage it. That, according to one Western researcher, is a simplistic read. She sees the TMT clashes as part of a larger narrative.
“Yes, this is the biggest and the loudest Indigenous issue happening right now. But many of these struggles are similar because they capture and build from the complete ignorance of colonial governments about the rights of Indigenous people,” Geography professor Chantelle Richmond explained.
Supported by an international Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Insight Grant, Richmond explores global Indigenous connections with the land – what she calls “environmental repossession.” In Hawaii, she is looking at how the act of protecting the mountain can be seen as an act of repossession.
She continued, “This isn’t just a big misunderstanding. Some people think that if only the native Hawaiian people knew about all the concessions that the TMT has made in the process that this could be solved. But when you are making decisions from a colonial framework that completely disregard the role of Indigenous rights, there will never be a common way forward.”
The TMT site location process has been long and winding, in and out of council chambers and courtrooms, for more than a decade. Researchers on both sides seem to agree that process is at the root of the problem as Indigenous populations and local governments often understand property and relationships in different ways.
While TMT consultations have gone through the legal process, consent within the indigenous population was never sought. Without it, native Hawaiians see the former route as a colonial structure weighted against them.
“They see that we never followed the native Hawaiian customs. And that is true,” Metchev said. “The astronomers followed the road paved by the local government – we went to the mountain because we thought it was OK. But that does not relieve us of the responsibility to be respectful, proper stewards and the proper process.”
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Thousands of kilometres away, the controversy has reached academic institutions who are wrestling with the issue on their own campuses, often splitting researchers. Western has been no different.
But Prichard saw this as an opportunity to confront the challenge head on.
“The research community at Western has been in dialogue around the choice of Mauna Kea as the site to build TMT, and the implications of colonization on the inherent rights of those Native Hawaiian people who oppose this choice,” she wrote. “Western colleagues are in consensus that the TMT project has a long and complex history. Our community members hold diverse positions and perspectives on aspects of the TMT project.”
She continued, “As the situation in Hawaii unfolds, we are taking the necessary time and steps to create ethical spaces in our academic community, where diverse peoples and ways of thinking can come together in pursuit of a way forward.”
Recognizing ongoing discussions and debates relating to the TMT project, Prichard brought together groups from across campus, including members of Indigenous Services and the Institute for Earth and Space Exploration, to examine and discuss all aspects of the issue. This initiative reflected “a deliberate effort to be inclusive of varying vantage points.”
Those spaces for conversations have been appreciated by those involved locally.
“That’s what universities are for,” Metchev said. “The forum Western created is a new one. It is clear we respect one another; it is also clear we disagree. Yet, we can all come together and sign a statement representative of our thoughts on the subject.
“We all agree the fundamental issue is a lack of opportunities for Indigenous peoples and native Hawaiians. That is part of what is driving this unrest. This project has heard the message loud and clear. It is trying to remedy centuries of neglect and injustice – but it can’t. And it has become a lightening rod for that.”
Barmby echoed those sentiments. “I have been proud of the efforts of many of us to understand different points of view, trying hard to get what the concerns are. Whether that is enough to solve the problem, I don’t know. But it really isn’t up to us to solve the problem. It is up to us to listen.”
Richmond explained that the most important and most complex problems force us to think about our different vantage points. By doing so, we also confront assumptions we have about the world – and the other side of the issue.
“If we can sit down and meaningfully open a space for communication, it is a really good thing,” she said. “It is a starting point. Then we are not building from a place that has assumptions built in already.
“At the end of the day, we are all people who really care. By sitting and listening to one another, we can at least come to consensus about what we can agree to disagree about in a respectful way.”
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Just this week, the Hawaiian governor, University of Hawaii and others made a series of pledges designed to offer “a way forward” for Mauna Kea and the TMT. Few know how those offers will play out. Western, however, realizes the problem cannot be solved from campus.
“Native people have been navigating by the stars forever. They understand the importance of astronomy. But they also want to see their rights and ways of understanding respected and protected,” said Richmond, Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Health and the Environment.
She thinks a solution may be found in a completely different place, one where local people are accepting of it – and that may not be Hawaii.
TMT officials have identified a second location on the island of La Palma, in Spain’s Canary Islands. However, astronomers say its 2,250-meter-high site – about half as high as Mauna Kea – is inferior for observations. Canada is especially reluctant to make the move.
Metchev said that losing access to Mauna Kea, and moving it to an inferior site, “would be the equivalent of banning all artic research north of the Artic Circle. Yes, we could still access cold climates in Canada, or even the southern latitude, but we could not see what is happening in the most important area.”
For now, attention will remain focused on a high point in the middle of the Pacific Ocean – a place worth debate because of what it offers the world.
“The specialness of Mauna Kea as a place is very clear,” Barmby said. “People seem to understand the specialness of it for native Hawaiians. What might not be as clear to people is how special a place it is to astronomers – not just because it is a wonderful site, not because it is a great place to put telescopes. I do not know an astronomer who have been to the top of Mauna Kea who does not think it is special, too. We are grateful to have the opportunity to work there, to do this incredible science we get to do there.”