MAUNA KEA, Hawaii – Singing, chanting and lying on the ground in the road, hundreds of people demonstrated Monday against the construction of a giant telescope on a mountaintop that some Native Hawaiians consider sacred.
The protests were the latest salvo in a yearslong fight that pits scientific discovery against cultural preservation.
Scientists hope the massive telescope 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.
About daybreak Monday, the day construction was to begin, a group of kupuna, or elders, sitting in chairs, tied themselves together with rope and blocked the road to the summit of Mauna Kea. Another group of protesters lay prone on the ground, with their arms shackled under a grate in the road.
The road was officially closed hours after it was essentially blocked by protesters. The elders tied together were expecting to be arrested.
After two protest leaders spoke with police, they addressed the crowd and told them anyone who didn't move would be arrested. The group would move aside, but the elders were expected to remain, protest leaders Kaho'okahi Kanuha and Andre Perez said.
Telescope opponent Jennifer Leina'ala Sleightholm said she hoped peaceful protests would lead to an end of the project while acknowledging that was an unlikely scenario.
“I think I know what will happen, but what I hope will happen is I hope that they would just turn around and save our kupuna,” she said, using the Hawaiian word for elders.
A puuhonua, or place of refuge set up at the base of Mauna Kea, won't be swept by authorities, Kanuha and Perez told protesters after consulting with police.
“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.”
Scientists selected Mauna Kea in 2009 after a five-year, worldwide search for the ideal site.
Supporters of the $1.4 billion telescope say the cutting-edge instrument'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.