Hawaii Is a Paradise, but Whose?

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Locals in Oahu know that the best way to get from Waikiki’s crowded beaches to the cool North Shore is to drive along the island’s eastern coast. The road is framed by mountains, ocean and greenery so lush and beautiful, it’s hard to focus the eye on one place for too long, for fear of missing the next scenic attraction.

On a recent trip along the route, something else stood out: the upside down Hawaiian flags flying at almost every stop.

The flag, which has the union jack in the bottom left corner, instead of the usual top left, hung in storefronts in Waikiki and was printed on T-shirts in Waimanalo, it was stuck on the bumpers of passing cars in Kailua and flying from the backs of trucks in Kahuku and other towns on the North Shore.

The flag has become a symbol of solidarity among Hawaiians who oppose the construction of a large new telescope on Mauna Kea, on the island of Hawaii. Mauna Kea, at 32,000 feet from seafloor to summit, and with 13,796 feet above sea level, is one of the best places in the northern hemisphere, if not the world, to observe the cosmos, experts say. The telescope’s proponents say that it will bring hundreds of jobs to the island and advance humanity’s study of space.

But it has faced fierce resistance from some native Hawaiians for whom Mauna Kea is sacred ground and a place of roots, and their allies. Opponents of the telescope say they are tired of having their land taken for purposes that benefit others and for the often elusive promise of jobs that fail to deliver in terms of numbers or a living wage.

“The struggle at Mauna Kea right now is one of the biggest issues that has realigned many cultural political relationships in Hawaii,” said Kyle Kajihiro, an activist and lecturer at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “It’s really quite an amazing emergence of Hawaiian activism of cultural awareness.”

The battle over the telescope has revealed fissures that have long existed in Hawaii, a place that is all but synonymous with tourism — the most-popular destination for honeymoons in the United States and a bucket-list perennial. The fight has inspired actions around the islands, all relating to how land is used and who benefits from it.

The spirit of protest is most visible in Oahu, where in Kahuku demonstrators have spent the last several months fighting the construction of eight wind turbines, each standing at 568 feet — taller than the tallest skyscraper in Honolulu. Protesters say the turbines will have adverse long term health effects on the population. The company building them says there is no evidence to support those claims and promises to bring jobs to the area. More than 160 people have been arrested there.