KAILUA-KONA — Emotions run deep on both sides of the Thirty Meter Telescope debate.
Or do they?
It depends on whom you ask.
West Hawaii Today polled random people around Kailua-Kona this week and although many did not want to share their opinion on the polarizing subject, an even more surprising number of local residents were unaware of the issue that has dominated media and social media coverage over the past 17 days.
One person looked very confused and asked, “What’s going on up on the mountain?”
He was one of several people who hadn’t been following protests over the proposed $1.4 billion telescope.
Protesters, — who call themselves kiai, or protectors of Maunakea, which they consider sacred — have been camping out and blocking access to the summit since July 14. The gathering has become quite the high profile movement, enticing visits from celebrities, including Hollywood stars Dwayne The Rock Johnson, Jason Momoa, and musician Jack Johnson.
But while the hustle and bustle has seemed like a lot, it hasn’t been the focal point of everyone’s world.
Dennis Westcott is one of those — although he is against TMT.
“I side with the locals,” he said. “We don’t need another one (telescope) up there.”
But, he added, he hasn’t been following the news or social media about the situation.
Cole Snyder echoed that sentiment.
“TMT is wrong,” he said, but added while he supports the protectors, he is not following politics closely. “It’s kinda sad. They (politicians) could do more if they wanted to.”
Another person, who didn’t want to give their name, said she was already burnt out seeing all the media coverage.
“I’ve stopped reading about it, it’s just too much,” she said.
But, unsurprisingly, folks around Kona also had strong opinions.
Jenny Partin passionately supports TMT. She doesn’t believe the protesters have researched the project thoroughly and are spreading false information.
“It’s going to help my children, my children’s children and all mankind,” she said of the discoveries that could be made with the telescope.
She believes TMT will be respectful of the culture, noting that she is married to a Hawaiian who feels the same way.
“They call themselves protectors. Why aren’t they out there protecting our kids from drugs? Drug dealers and drunk drivers are out there killing our families,” she said.
She wondered if all the protest energy could be used to help the people on other causes around the island.
It would be nice, she added, if the protectors and TMT officials stop, wait and listen to each other, although she believes there is no room for compromise on either side.
“If the protectors really listen to their ancestors, they may be telling them we need this for our children. They are being selfish,” she concluded.
On the other side of the coin, Eryn, who didn’t want to give her last name because of the sensitivity around the polarized topic, supports the protectors and doesn’t see the promised economic benefit the telescope will bring to the island. She believes promised jobs will not go to local people.
“We live in the shadow of the mountain,” she said. “I don’t want to wake up every day and see (TMT) up there.”
She doesn’t see how the two sides can come to an agreement since there is “no middle ground, no common ground,” but Eryn said the governor is passing the buck by handing over negotiations to Mayor Harry Kim, noting that he doesn’t have the authority to do anything about it.
Despite her support for the protectors, she acquiesced the inevitability of the project moving forward.
“It’s too late now. Legally they have the right to build it. I don’t like it but what can you do?” she lamented.
Chelae Primacio was visiting from Oahu with the sole purpose to join the protectors on the mountain.
“It’s a movement. It’s what’s going to set footing on what will happen next, the preservation of Hawaiian lands,” she said.
Primacio noted the importance of preserving places and native plants for future generations to appreciate their culture and heritage. She believes that Gov. David Ige made a smart move by putting Kim in charge of the negotiations because he is closer to the issue, knows the local people and how things work on the island.
“Hopefully, the mayor has a better approach of things happening,” she said.
But what’s a good controversy without an online spat?
The polarization of the issue led to a social media call to boycott some local businesses who purportedly support TMT. Included in the boycott were KTA Super Stores and HPM Building Supply.
KTA CEO and chairman Barry Taniguchi has been a supporter of the telescope and wrote about his support in an op-ed published in Big Island newspapers.
That support prompted the call by some protesters to stop shopping at the local grocer.
“Boycott KTA!” one commenter, Rauchelle Nenio-Torres, wrote on Facebook. “Nope … you will not profit from my shopping.”
KTA didn’t respond to a request for comment.
One person polled this week opined that pro-TMT supporters were hesitant to voice their opinions for fear of backlash.
“Pro TMT people are not as vocal as the protesters,” the person, who asked to remain nameless, said. “They don’t want the opposition to come back at them.”
But HPM President &CEO Jason Fujimoto reacted to the call to boycott his store by saying “for the past 98 years, our company has been here for our community, and our community has been here for us. We care about and are committed to our community.”
“The controversy over the Thirty Meter Telescope has divided the community, and as an employee-owned company, HPM cannot take a position on TMT,” he added.
“We respect the views of both sides of the issue, and we respect the views of all of our owner-employees,” he said. “Having been a part of this community for nearly a century, we support initiatives that will make progress toward resolving differences in cultural perspectives.