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State senator: Plan to designate Maunakea occupiers as ‘homeless individuals’ is unacceptable

  • FEVELLA

  • AILA

Two Oahu legislators have asked the state Department of Hawaiian Homelands to halt any plans to forcefully remove protesters who remain on Maunakea.

DHHL Chairman William Aila Jr., however, says plans for any immediate removals have been “paused.”

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In a statement provided to the Tribune-Herald on Tuesday, Aila said the DHHL regularly addresses unauthorized campers and unpermitted structures on Hawaiian homestead lands.

“The department recently began to assess several campsites surrounding Pu‘uhuluhulu to determine if any social services were needed prior to the issuance of any trespass notices,” he said. “Afterwards, I was invited to a meeting with community leaders, and a request for a limited right of entry to the area was made.

“In consideration of recent increases in COVID-19 infections, immediate removals near the Daniel K. Inouye Highway have been paused.”

Protesters against the Thirty Meter Telescope — who refer to themselves as kia‘i or protectors — initially encamped in the area surrounding the Maunakea Access Road in 2019 when construction of the controversial observatory was set to begin.

“It seems that as a result of a recent ruling by a court in the Canary Islands to revoke a land agreement with the international consortium behind the Thirty Meter Telescope project may have prompted DHHL to step up its efforts to remove peaceful demonstrators who have remained on Maunakea,” Sen. Minority Leader Kurt Fevella and state Rep. Stacelynn Eli wrote in a Sept. 9 letter to Aila.

Maunakea always has been the preferred site for TMT, because its altitude and latitude make it ideal for viewing the stars. The consortium behind TMT named the Canary Islands in Spain as a potential alternate site in 2016, and in 2019 reached a land agreement with the City Council of Puntagorda, a municipality on the north end of the island of La Palma.

However, the land agreement last month was revoked after a lawsuit was filed by ecological conservation group Ben Magec: Ecologistas en Accion in the high court of the Canary Islands.

“Long‐standing mismanagement concerns and unfulfilled promises to address land use, environmental and cultural conditions that sparked national opposition in 2019 remain largely unresolved,” the lawmakers wrote to Aila. “Many community stakeholders have received little to no indications from your department or other executive level state officials of any proposal to address stewardship responsibilities owed to the indigenous people of Hawaii.”

“We held a meeting with DHHL to request more information regarding Maunakea and we were told by the department that there were plans in place to designate our kupuna and kia‘i who are peacefully occupying Maunakea as homeless individuals,” Fevella said in a statement. “This is unacceptable, and I hope DHHL reconsiders their position and proceed with our recommendation to cease and desist all plans to remove our ohana from the mauna.”

The Sept. 9 letter follows one sent to Aila on Aug. 24 that was signed by Fevella, Hilo Sen. Laura Acasio and Kailua-Kona Rep. Jeanne Kapela.

In that letter, the lawmakers asked Aila to explore possibilities that would permit the protesters to remain on the mountain.

“The kupuna and kia‘i who remain on Maunakea continue to respect, honor and protect the mauna each day they are there,” they wrote in the August letter.

“They are not squatters; nor are they homeless. During their time on the mauna, they have picked up and removed trash left behind by squatters, partiers and visitors. They have also educated visitors, shared the culture and explained the history of this sacred place, Maunakea.”

At that time, the lawmakers expressed concern that plans to remove the protesters could compel others to return, which would be problematic given the ongoing surge of COVID-19 cases.

Acasio said in an email Tuesday that, to her knowledge, Aila has not responded to the legislators’ first letter, and she has received no communication from him or his office.

She was unaware of the Sept. 9 letter, “however, it is understandable, and I support its content.”

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It remains unclear if other Big Island lawmakers were invited to sign the subsequent letter.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.