Since 2019, University of California students have advocated for the UC to fully divest from the Thirty Meter Telescope project slated to be built on sacred Indigenous land on Hawai‘i’s Big Island. The movement has gained traction during the 2022-23 school year with the UC-wide advocacy group Mauna Kea Protectors leading the charge.
The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project is currently at a standstill and is seeking $800 million in funding from the National Science Foundation, which is conducting an environmental impact report on the potential repercussions of the project before providing funding.
The divestment movement — UC Divest TMT — calls for pulling UC investments from TMT, as the construction would occur without the consent of Indigenous Hawaiians and is detrimental to the surrounding ecosystem.
Ultimately, the decision of divestment is one that rests with the UC Board of Regents — the UC’s governing body. UC Santa Barbara Chancellor Henry T. Yang currently chairs the Board of Governors for the project.
Third-year political science student, Mauna Kea Protector and Student Advocate to the Regents Valeria Caveroegusquiza said that with a public comment time of one minute and a “controlled environment,” the issue of Mauna Kea is never fully heard during Regents meetings.
“For the [September] Regents meeting, they refused to put us on the agenda,” Caveroegusquiza said. “The idea that nobody really wants to acknowledge and nobody really wants to take responsibility for TMT is definitely in the room.”
Caveroegusquiza added that many UC officials are abdicating their responsibility in addressing students’ concerns surrounding TMT.
“Some things I heard from people who weren’t regents but are chancellors or advisors were ‘Oh, it’s out of our hands,’ ‘That’s above me,’ ‘It’s up to our international partners, and our international partners want to build on the Mauna so there’s nothing we can do,’” she continued.
For fifth-year political science major, Mauna Kea Protector and Students Enacting Environmental Defense Campaign Coordinator for the UC Student Association Honu Nichols, building community space for Indigenous students and reinvesting back into the community is key in the divestment effort.
“After giving testimony with the Board of Regents and discussing UC divestment from TMT for so many years, I think that it’s really clear that the UC does not care about protecting Indigenous rights,” Nichols said. “What we want to do is take it as a next step further and reimagine how we can divest from TMT and then reinvest into Indigenous communities.”
Spring Quarter 2022 was when the majority of in-person UC Divest TMT campaigning occurred, according to Nichols. One such event was held at UCSB by Mauna Kea Protectors UCSB in May, with a Sacred & Poetry Public Comment Workshop as well as live music and food.
The event opened with members of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians officially welcoming Mauna Kea Protectors UCSB onto their land in an important move, Nichols said, that went “beyond the scope of just a land acknowledgment,” to give full consent and acknowledge that UCSB resides on native land.
All events and efforts of the movement are centered around this key value of consent and respect for Indigenous land.
Uprooted and Rising — an extension organization of Real Food Generation that advocates primarily for food sovereignty as well as other social issues — California Coordinator Dante Gonzales oversees the organization’s UC Divest TMT campaign. The broader UC Divest TMT movement is made up of many who consider themselves Mauna Kea Protectors, with branches in different campuses such as Mauna Kea Protectors UCSB, Gonzales explained.
“When you’re standing as a protector, you are rooted, you’re grounded and you’re presenting yourself as part of the Mauna and on behalf of the Mauna as well too,” Gonzales said.
The movement is representing a “united front,” according to Gonzales, and has expanded across the UC system to all campuses but UC Riverside and UC Merced, which Gonzales has plans to reach out to.
“We are base building at every single one of these campuses, and we’ve actually base built now to every single campus except two which is very exciting,” Gonzales said.
Another value the movement grounds itself in is Kapu Aloha, which Nichols explained “is a sacred form of nonviolent resistance that is based in love.”
“We want to make sure that a lot of our actions were done and based on protocol, with our ancestors protecting us and that space,” Nichols said.
In advocating for Indigenous rights and protections, the organization also strives to create new spaces for Indigenous students.
“A lot of our actions have been based in trying to create space for Indigenous people and Indigenous students to be Indigenous,” Nichols said. “Some of the biggest feedback I got [from our May event] was regarding that space. We were able to have conversations about our experiences with colonialism and what it means to go to an institution that sits on native land and how nice it was to actually be welcomed onto that space properly.”
These forms of community spaces are key in reinvesting in Indigenous communities, whilst divesting from TMT, according to Nichols.
Nichols said the group is looking to hold town halls and workshops in conjunction with the MultiCultural Center, and other forms of community discussion in the fall quarter to ultimately form a list of set demands to present to the Regents in the spring. With a focus on reinvesting in community and protecting Indigenous land, the movement embarks on a new year.
“We are showing this united front alongside other folks who are calling for divestment from the profiting off of the death and desecration of land,” Gonzales said.
A version of this article appeared on p. 1 of the Oct. 13, 2022 print edition of the Daily Nexus.