More than three weeks have passed since Governor David Ige made the announcement that the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) was “set to start construction,” and yet no equipment has made the ascent up Maunakea. Instead, at Mauna Kea Access Road, kia‘i, or protectors, have set up camp. Through non-violent action and kapu aloha, bound by culture and identity, and grounded in arguments that the TMT on Maunakea would desecrate sacred lands, harm the environment, and deepen colonialism, the group has brought development of the $1.4-billion telescope to a grinding halt.
The standoff has invited solidarity from kia‘i around the world and sparked hot takes from people on all sides of the issue. Maui County Councilmember Tamara Paltin was one voice to weigh in on the issue recently, with correspondence to University of Hawai‘i president David Lassner.
“The University of Hawai’i, not the Governor, is responsible for what has and continues to take place on the summit of Mauna Kea since its lease was granted in 1968 by the Board of Land and Natural Resources and subsequently subleased to TMT,” wrote Paltin in a letter dated July 26. “This includes the responsibility for the recent arrests of 38 people, including kupuna, at least four of whom are residents of the County of Maui. Your failure to adhere to my urgent request to stand down until your legal counsel could refute the information provided in my July 12th letter to you resulted in irreparable harm to our kupuna, and your letter provided no such refutation.”
The letter was the latest in the back-and-forth between the councilmember and the UH president, and came following Lassner’s July 18 response to Paltin’s “urgent plea” to halt TMT construction sent on July 12 as tensions and insecurity mounted regarding an upcoming confrontation between the state and kia‘i.
“I have grave concerns for the safety of Maui County’s residents and all individuals mobilizing to access and assemble atop Mauna Kea,” wrote Paltin in the first letter, citing a volatile combination of extreme weather, high emotions, individuals of varying ages and abilities, and law enforcement personnel. Paltin also forwarded correspondence from Dr. Keanu Sai, an eminent political scientist studying the Hawaiian Kingdom and a faculty member within the UH system.
According to Paltin, Sai addresses three topics that could prove problematic for the University of Hawai‘i with regards to the TMT. First, the lease agreement between the Board of Land and Natural Resources and UH is invalid, as the lands were never legally acquired by the United States or ceded by the Hawaiian Kingdom. Second, the previous telescopes on the summit could be considered grounds for the war crime of property destruction. And third, it is a violation of the native tenant rights of residents Ka‘ohe, the ahapua‘a of the area.
Sai concluded, “Complicating matters would be the fact that the University of Hawai’i’s general lease is invalid and therefore its sublease to TMT is void. As there is no evidence of consent from the Hawaiian Kingdom government to either the University of Hawai’i or for TMT, to include TMT’s construction company Goodfellow Bros., to be on the summit of Mauna Kea, they would be the trespassers on government lands, and not those who would oppose the destruction of the property.
“Aboriginal Hawaiians who call themselves protectors of the mauna have more of a right to the summit under their ‘native tenant rights’ than the University of Hawai’i or TMT who have no rights in the absence of a valid lease. They are, after all, protecting their rights against an unlawful encroachment by entities lacking permission of the true titled owner.”
Before signing the letter, Paltin reiterated her urgent plea to halt the TMT construction until a UH legal review of Sai’s claims.
Apparently, Lassner didn’t heed the memo. Six days later, on July 18, Lassner responded (in full): “This is to acknowledge receipt of your letter dated July 12, 2019. Thank you for sharing your concerns. The safety of all persons (members of the public and construction workers alike) is the highest priority of everyone involved in the Thirty Meter Telescope project. The Governor and other State officials handling the public safety arrangements for the start of project construction have emphasized this point, and that the project has all approvals required by law.”
That wasn’t good enough for Paltin, who fired back on July 26, “your rather curt response is unacceptable and irresponsible considering what appears to be the irrefutable historical information now publicly available on a global level.”
She added, “Your letter provided no evidence to the contrary clearly showing that the lease is valid; that the war crimes of destruction of property did not take place with the previous construction of the previous telescopes; and that the summit of Mauna Kea is not subject to the rights of native tenants.
“Therefore, I have to take your letter as agreeing with me that the lease is invalid, war crimes have been committed, and native tenant rights are not intact. If I am mistaken and you indeed are NOT in agreement with me, then it would be imperative for you to immediately have your legal counsel at the University of Hawai’i ‘determine whether or not Dr. Sai’s assessment of the situation is misplaced,’ which I specifically requested in my initial July 12th letter to you. To not do so is a dereliction of your duty as the grantor of the sublease to TMT, which consequently places Goodfellow Bros., a Maui company, and their employees, in legal jeopardy.”
Lassner has not yet responded to Paltin’s latest letter, the councilmember’s office said. You can read the full correspondence between Councilmember Paltin and UH president David Lassner online at Mauicounty.us/paltin.