ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
All this week, Native Hawaiian activists have been protesting the planned construction of the world's largest telescope on Hawaii's tallest mountain. The mountain is a sacred site. For astronomers, it's also one of the best places on Earth to observe the solar system and beyond. Hawaii Public Radio's Ryan Finnerty reports from the Big Island.
RYAN FINNERTY, BYLINE: As many as 500 demonstrators have been gathered on the slopes of the 14,000-foot-high Mauna Kea since Monday. They've been using nonviolent confrontation and traditional songs and chants.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Singing in foreign language).
FINNERTY: They're trying to stop the planned construction of the 30-meter telescope, a celestial observatory that has been in the works for a decade. Some of the protesters went as far as chaining themselves to the summit access road. Kalaekeo Kaea was one of them.
KALAEKEO KAEA: For us, that mountain is so important in the meaning of who we are as a people. It is part of our humanity.
FINNERTY: Mauna Kea's height, clean air and remoteness give it some of the best stargazing conditions of any place on Earth. That's why there are already 13 telescopes on the summit. But the mountain is considered sacred by many Native Hawaiians, who have been waging a court battle against the project for years. When the telescope was granted final approval to proceed, activists organized this protest to stop the movement of construction equipment. Demonstrator Kaea says he's not anti-science.
KAEA: I'm not going to say I'm against telescopes. For me, the main purpose is that it's our people to decide what should happen with that mountain. That's period. And the only way you can impose it on other people forcefully is to see that other people as subhuman. And that's really what is going on here. We're here to reclaim our humanity.
FINNERTY: Many scientists feel caught in the middle. They say the telescope, known as the TMT, could lead to huge breakthroughs in astronomy but understand the cultural concerns. Jessica Dempsey is the deputy director of the East Asian Observatory, which operates an existing telescope on Mauna Kea.
JESSICA DEMPSEY: The TMT adds things that right now the current capabilities of some of the telescopes can't do - really going to be an amazing addition to what the current one at Kea observatories are already doing.
FINNERTY: In addition to the scientific benefits, many policymakers see the astronomy industry as an opportunity to diversify a local economy that is heavily dependent on tourism and agriculture, both of which suffered after last year's high-profile volcanic eruption. Miles Yoshioka is the executive officer of the Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce. He says astronomy is a clean industry that provides good jobs for the community.
MILES YOSHIOKA: And we hope clear heads will prevail and realize that this is something that will help the next generations and build up an economy where we can have higher-paying jobs for our island.
FINNERTY: Yoshioka says Hawaii's astronomy industry already employs 1,600 people statewide and is responsible for $170 million in economic activity. That kind of argument doesn't hold sway for Native Hawaiian activist Kealoha Piscotta. She worked as a telescope operator on Mauna Kea for 12 years but says there are already too many telescopes on the mountain. This one would be number 14.
KEALOHA PISCOTTA: You know, we're not against science, and this has never been about science. We would be against a hospital, too, but that wouldn't mean we're against health care. This is not the place to do it. And we've shared Mauna Kea for years. They have - world-class astronomy is done on Mauna Kea now.
FINNERTY: Demonstrators say they are committed to stay for as long as it takes to stop construction.
For NPR News, I'm Ryan Finnerty on Mauna Kea, Hawaii.
(SOUNDBITE OF SUNLOUNGER'S "SUNNY TALES [CHILL]")