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Approval Given to Thirty Meter Telescope on Sacred Mountain

Science
Artist's rendering of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). TMT Observatory Corporation

By Gabriella Rutherford

In what its chairperson deemed "one of the most difficult decisions the board has ever made," the Hawai'i Board of Land and Natural Resources last week approved construction of the controversial Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on top of Mauna a Wakea (Mauna Kea).

The decision has been met with fierce criticism.


For the Kanaka Maoli Peoples, Mauna a Wakea is a sacred center, as much an ancestor as it is a home of deities. Created by their forbearers, the sky god Wakea and the Earth mother Papa, the 4,000-meter mountain is a place of unique spiritual connection between the Kanaka Maoli and their ancestors. It is in many ways a living temple, a site of numerous shrines and ceremonies and an important burial ground.

The Kanaka Maoli also believe the Mauna a Wakea mountain plays an integral role in Hawaii's water cycle, and use the water collected at its summit for healing and ceremonial practices. They fear these practices could be disrupted by the construction of the TMT and the concomitant possibility it brings of water pollution.

Twelve other telescopes have already been constructed on Mauna a Wakea, which has led to "substantial, significant and adverse" effects on local biodiversity as well as on the Kanaka Maoli cultural, archaeological and historic resources on the mountain.

All this did not, however, provide sufficient reason for the board to scrap the project. They found that the TMT would neither unduly interfere with ceremonial practices—which they note do not take place on the exact site of the TMT—nor would it adversely affect the landscape, given the presence of numerous other local observatories currently in operation. They similarly rejected arguments regarding the threat of water-pollution and environmental damage, pointing to the zero-waste management policy that is to be adopted by the TMT and the annual sum the latter will contribute to environmental conservation in the area.

The board was further anxious to reassure the public that by attaching myriad conditions to the permit construction, they would be able to limit and make up for any environmental damage occasioned, as well as protecting and even helping promote indigenous culture. Additionally, they said that building what they described as "the world's most advanced telescope" on Mauna a Wakea was a fitting homage to the Kanaka Maoli's traditional astrological dependence for the purposes of navigation. As such, they concluded that the TMT was "a project that honors Mauna Kea rather than injures it."

However, we should be cautious before joining the board in celebrating this decision as a "fitting and fair" solution that deftly reconciles tensions between scientific progress and indigenous culture. Clearly their stipulations are not derisory: as recompense for the cultural impact, the TMT will contribute an annual $1 million "community benefits package" (CBP). Similarly, a condition for the construction of TMT is that three other telescopes on the mountain will be decommissioned and no new ones will be built. Despite this, given the unavoidable environmental destruction that will be caused across the extensive 5-acre area during the TMT's construction, many of the concessions appear surprisingly paltry. Likewise, while the CBP promises much in name, it is yet to be seen what real positive effects it would bring for the community. Is this, as TMT petitioner Clarence Kūkauakahi Ching noted on social media, "all smoke and mirrors!?"

For its opponents, one thing is clear: however much the board is keen to paint this decision in a positive light, this, moving forward with the TMT does not represent an example of "science and culture synergistically existing" as the board has led the public to believe. To Kahookahi Kanuha, co-founder of Hawaii Unity and Liberation Institute, the decision marks another instance of the Hawaiian state having "once again shown themselves to be incapable of protecting, conserving and managing Hawaiʻiʻs unique and limited natural, cultural and historic resources."

Thirty Meter Telescope protest, Oct. 7, 2014. Local police stand in the background as Mayor Billy Kenoi talks with Hawaiian cultural practitioner, Joshua Lanakila Mangauil, Kahookahi Kanuha and other protectors. Occupy Hilo

Kanuha and others are adamant that the decision jeopardizes cultural and national identity and indeed the Kanaka Maoli's very "humanity as a people." As such, it is a decision that calls for immediate action. As he noted on social media, "We have once again been left with no choice but to resist and to take matters back into our own hands. Though it will not be easy, we will organize, strategize and exercise our un-relinquished rights and claims to our national lands. Any attempts by TMT, the illegitimate State of Hawaii or the University of Hawaiʻi to ascend Mauna Wakea will be met with peaceful, non-violent resistance."

The extent of the struggle the Kanaka Maoli have on their hands cannot and should not be underestimated, but there are reasons for optimism. It should be remembered that opponents have successfully stalled the project before, and in some respects, the board's decision only puts the TMT project back before protestors halted the telescope's construction in April 2015. That December, following sustained pressure, The Supreme Court of Hawaii ruled in favor of indigenous and environmental activists, revoking the telescope's first construction permit. Opposition groups will undoubtedly mount a further legal challenge and seek to appeal this decision in the supreme court, affording a final opportunity for the Hawaiian state to reverse its decision and ultimately, as Kanuha would assert, "make the right decision for Hawaii."

Reposted with permission from our media associate Intercontinental Cry.

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Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.

Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."

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