Land and Telescopes

Mauna Kea, home to the world's best ground-based optical telescopes, including the Gemini and Keck observatories

Controversy over land ownership is no new thing in astronomy, and for the past few decades has been a thorny issue in the building of telescopes on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. For optical astronomers, the best places to observe the universe are on sites which are high and dry (with Mauna Kea being one of the best), but it just happens that such places are often considered by natives of the land to be sacred sites as well.

The Wajjari community in Western Australia holds the land title for the site where the Square Kilometre Array will potentially be built, should Australia win the bid. It is also the site where the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) and the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA), are being built. At the end of last year, it was announced that an agreement had been reached between the Wajjari community and the state government for the use of that huge piece of land as a radio quiet observatory. You can read about it here and here.

The Murchison Radio Astronomy Observatory - the site where the ASKAP, and potentially the SKA, will be built

However, controversy is brewing, after an article was published on the front page of the West Australian claiming that the state government has secretly offered to pay $10 million to a group of aboriginals to drop their native title objections.

I have seen how the rights of natives in Malaysia have been trodden upon by logging and palm oil companies, not to mention the government itself. The construction of dams and continued deforestation pose a threat to the lifestyles of these natives, as their objections to such activities fall on deaf ears. Having lived and worked among them (though only for a short period), I’ve always been sympathetic to their plight. But as someone who also works in astronomy, conflict over native land and their use as sites for astronomical observatories tears me apart.

Whatever may happen next in Western Australia, let’s hope that the issues will be sorted out in a transparent manner.

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