MAUNA KEA, Hawaii (AP) — Protesters vowed to continue demonstrating against the construction of a giant telescope on top of a mountain some Native Hawaiians consider sacred after they spent the day blocking the road to the project site.
About a dozen elders, or kupuna, sat in chairs at the start of the road on July 15, committed to being arrested if need be. Another eight shackled themselves to each other over a grate in the road.
They acted after state officials announced they would close the road to the summit of Mauna Kea so they could begin bringing equipment to the construction site in the coming days.
The confrontation was a dramatic start to what could be weeks or more of protests pitting scientific discovery against cultural preservation and indigenous rights.
“We understand that this is going to be a prolonged struggle,’’ said Kaho’okahi Kanuha, one of the protest leaders. He said he was confident the telescope wouldn’t be built.
Astronomers are hopeful the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope will help them study the earliest moments of the universe after the Big Bang as well as identify more planets outside our solar system.
They favor Mauna Kea because the clear air and limited light pollution at its summit 13,796 feet above sea level makes it one of the world’s best locations for studying the skies. The peak is already home to about a dozen other telescopes.
But some Native Hawaiians view the summit as sacred, and say the presence of yet another telescope will further damage it.
Richard Ha, a Native Hawaiian farmer who supports the project, said he was encouraged that there seems to be some cooperation between protesters and law enforcement.
He said he sympathized with the protesters, but was hopeful construction will begin.
It can be hard for Native Hawaiians to support the telescope because they fear backlash for being perceived as opposing Hawaiian beliefs, he said.
“It’s very difficult when you have family members on different sides,’’ he said.
The project has been delayed by years of legal battles and demonstrations, drawing attention from the likes of “Aquaman’’ actor Jason Momoa, who has Native Hawaiian ancestry and has voiced opposition to the telescope.
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.
Attempts to begin construction in 2015 ended with arrests and crews pulling back.
Hawaii’s Supreme Court last year ruled construction would be legal. The project has permits and the state has given the company behind the telescope a green light to resume building.
The company is made up of a group of universities in California and Canada, with partners from China, India, and Japan.
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.