UC Santa Barbara activist group Mauna Kea Protectors continues to advocate for the University of California to divest from the Thirty Meter Telescope project, set to be built on sacred Indigenous land on Hawai’i’s Big Island. Building on efforts began in 2019, the group is organizing events educating the UCSB community and connecting with the broader UC community through the UC Student Association.

Mauna Kea Protectors organize on campus through educational events, tabling, and film screenings. Sydney Haupt / Daily Nexus

The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) is an ongoing endeavor to construct a scientific telescope on Mauna Kea — a summit sacred to Hawaiians. The project is partially funded by the UC, and UCSB Chancellor Henry T. Yang has served as the project’s chair since 2007, drawing controversy and dissension from communities across the UC system.

Mauna Kea Protectors’ activism this year expanded through the UC Student Association’s (UCSA) Students Enacting Environmental Defense (S.E.E.D.) campaign, advocating for the UC to divest from the TMT project and invest in Indigenous communities. Third-year political science major, MKP Chair and External Vice President of Student for Statewide Affairs (EVPSA)-elect Vero Caveroegusquiza praised the support the campaign has provided in bridging gaps across the UC system.

“It’s been a big help in not only making sure actions are happening regularly but also making sure actions are happening regularly across campuses,” Caveroegusquiza said. 

These actions include statewide strategy meetings, educational events on respective campuses and outreach to the UC Regents and TMT entities via letters and public statements. MKP has connected with student groups from UC Santa Cruz, UC San Diego, UCLA, UC Riverside, UC Davis and UC Berkeley in its organizing efforts. Contacts for the S.E.E.D. coordinators of each branch are linked on UC S.E.E.D.’s Instagram.

“I think Berkeley used to have an MKP branch, so to see [these campuses] be like ‘Okay, like, what does it look like for our schools to get back on the horse, or to get on the horse in the first place?’ … It’s been really cool,” Caveroegusquiza said.

The S.E.E.D. campaign was initiated by 2021-22 UCSA president and former UCSB External Vice President for Statewide Affairs Esmeralda Quintero-Cubillan during their term and carried forth at UCSB by former MKP chair and UCSB alum Honu Nichols, who served as S.E.E.D. coordinator for the campus last year. 

Second-year global studies major Mariela Vasquez serves as S.E.E.D. coordinator for this year and touches base with other campuses’ coordinators through weekly meetings. 

“There’s a traveling Kukulu exhibit [featuring art and music] on the four pillars of Mauna Kea protectors and the movement across Hawai’i. It went to Santa Cruz first and now is at Davis, and the plan is for it to get to every UC,” Vasquez said.

The TMT project has never appeared on the UC Board of Regents’ agendas for discussion, and MKP sent representatives to speak out against the project at the Regents’ Sept. 21, 2022, and Jan. 18, 2023, meetings. Most recently, outgoing External Vice President for Statewide Affairs Marvia Cunanan spoke against the project at the Regents’ May 16 Investments Committee meeting.

“As the investments committee, I urge you to understand the harm of the TMT project. It disrupts Mauna Kea’s unique ecosystem and desecrates sacred land,” Cunanan said at the meeting’s public forum. “UC funds are being poured into a telescope that will not be built. Meanwhile, Indigenous students, undocumented students and more continue to be underserved. As students we need you to step up and divest from TMT, and I hope to see this on your next agenda.” 

Direct discourse with Regents is uncommon, and public forums of the Regents meetings allot less than 5 minutes for students to voice their concerns. However, Caveroegusquiza said that MKP received rare support from Alumni Regent-designate Keith Ellis after speaking with him following the Regents’ September 2022 meeting.

“I remember that really well because [former MKP chair and UCSB alum Honu Nichols] ended up calling him a sheep,” Caveroegusquiza said. “That incited him enough that later he ended up calling UCSA to speak to the UCSA president about TMT, so it’s nice to see that there are some Regents making that effort to ask ‘What is this issue and why is there this student movement around it?’”

Ellis confirmed to the Nexus that he spoke with the Mauna Kea Protectors, and noting discussing “history and governance of the Hawaiian Islands as well as sovereignty.”

“While the scholars I met with about the TMT project might not agree with me, I respect their point of view and our discussion has informed my thinking about the TMT project; I will reflect on our discussion when TMT comes before the Regents,” Ellis said in a statement to the Nexus.

In February, MKP met with the TMT staff working in Hilo, Hawai’i to discuss their objectives in campaigning against the project — joined by delegations from UCLA, UCR and UC Irvine — but reached no compromise. In a statement on the MKP Instagram account, the group said its testimony was met with “vague answers, deflecting anecdotes, and identity politics undermining their stated intentions.”

“It was interesting talking with the staff, but I think what really stuck with me with that experience was the other people that were there with us,” Caveroegusquiza said. “One person was the daughter of someone arrested in the 2019 protests, and I remember her saying ‘You can’t Indigenize education because Indigenous is education,’ and that was super powerful.”

MKP’s organizing efforts this year have been broad in scope, ranging from tabling at events such as the I.V. Earth Day Fair to speaking with high schoolers and middle schoolers at El Congreso de UCSB’s Latine College Day.

“It was really cool to think, ‘Oh my gosh, these are students that can be activists,’” Caveroegusquiza said. “They can go change their school board and they can change the future of their schools and their high schools already, and we were able to help plant that seed.”

Additional campus events this quarter included discussions in the MultiCultural Center Lounge and a film screening on May 10 of “Act of War,” a 1993 documentary about the American takeover of the Hawaiian Islands.

After the film screening, Nichols, now living in Hawai’i after graduating from UCSB, discussed the film’s prevalence in Native Hawaiian activism. 

“The taking of Hawai’i was not just an overthrow, it was done by force,” Nichols said. “When this film started it was just a topic, and being an activist and speaking for Native Hawai’i rights was not common, and it was a little bit shameful in society … now we can be proud of our identity.”

Nichols then spoke about their experience and involvement in the movement to divest from TMT. 

“For me, the Mauna Kea movement is a livelihood. We are fighting for our right for self-determination,” said Nichols.

Mauna Kea is considered the creator of all of the people, not only across Hawai’i but also across Polynesia, according to Nichols. 

Nichols said that when they joined UCSB, they felt that they were in the perfect place to advocate against the project and for the rights of the Native Hawaiians because of Yang’s chairmanship of the project.

“The fact that I could raise and mobilize student power really changed my life,” Nichols said.

Now that mobilization of the Divest TMT movement has expanded across the UC system through the S.E.E.D. campaign, Caveroegusquiza said she hopes to see an MKP branch at each campus. UC S.E.E.D. launched a survey to assess students’ needs and experiences regarding reinvestment into Indigenous communities and plans to compile the results into a report to present to the Regents.

“I’m very excited to be able to have a bigger hand in UCSA,” Caveroegusquiza, who is the 2023-24 EVPSA-elect and thus on the UCSA board, said. “I cannot understate enough how helpful it’s been that S.E.E.D. even exists, because it means that we have a presence on every campus.”

Entering next year as EVPSA, Caveroegusquiza said she plans to bring an Indigenous justice perspective to her work and continue helming Divest TMT activism efforts through the outreach of the EVPSA office and UCSA.

“I want to ensure we can connect to communities [across the UC system], see an MKP branch at every campus and help connect organizing efforts on a statewide level,” Caveroegusquiza said.

A version of this article appeared on p. 3 of the May 18, 2022 print edition of the Daily Nexus. 


Sindhu Ananthavel
Sindhu Ananthavel (she/they) is the Lead News Editor for the 2023-24 school year. Previously, Ananthavel was the Deputy News Editor for the 2022-23 school year, the Community Outreach News Editor for the 2021-22 school year and an assistant news editor for the 2021-22 school year. She can be reached at news@dailynexus.com.