Easter Island – famous for its monumental statues called moai – was annexed by Chile in 1888. Until 1953 Chile allowed a Scottish company to manage the island as a giant sheep ranch, while the Rapanui (indigenous Polynesians) were penned into the township of Hanga Roa. In 1964 they revolted, later obtaining Chilean citizenship and the right to elect their own mayor.
Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl noted that Easter Island’s famous statues were similar to those at Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, and in 1947 he sailed the Kon-Tiki raft from Peru to French Polynesia to prove it could have been colonised from South America.
Today, most historians and anthropologists consider that Polynesians from the west were the original inhabitants of Easter Island, although genetic evidence was found in 2011 that before being colonised by Europeans the locals had interbred with people from South America.
Easter Island is remote. The next-door neighbours live on the Pitcairn Islands, over 2,000 km to the west and inhabited by descendants of the Bounty mutineers. Easter Island is tiny – just 25 km from one end to the other. And with a population of about 6,000, it is inundated when thousands of tourists arrive each year, placing an enormous strain on the local infrastructure.
Inhabitants and visitors together produce 20 tonnes of rubbish a day. The three-year old recycling plant processes 40,000 plastic bottles a month, but much of the garbage cannot be recycled. So Easter islanders send scrap metal and cardboard to the Chilean mainland for disposal. To do so is prohibitively expensive and because of the risk of dengue fever, the rubbish has to be fumigated before arriving at Chilean ports. There is a long-term plan to incinerate waste to generate electricity, but that is still some years off. Sanitation, healthcare, and fresh water are other major problems.
Easter Island has an independent online newspaper called El Correo del Moai published in Spanish since Chileans now outnumber the Rapa Nui – the original islanders of Polynesian descent. The newspaper’s director, Leo Pakarati, is critical. He describes the islanders as “victims of indiscriminate immigration” from Chile which, culturally, has little in common with the island. He is calling for the number of immigrant residents to be restricted and for the locals to have more say in how the island is run.
A National Geographic article (July 2012) noted that, “Just three decades ago, cars, electricity, and phone service were scarce; now Hanga Roa, the only town, buzzes with Internet cafés, bars, and dance clubs, and cars and pickup trucks clog the streets on Saturday nights. Wealthy tourists drop a thousand dollars a night at the poshest of scores of hotels. A Birkenstock shop caters to footsore ramblers.”
The article continued, “Today islanders confront a fresh challenge: exploiting their cultural legacy without wrecking it. A growing population and thousands of tourists are straining a limited water supply. The island lacks a sewer system and a place to put the swelling volume of trash.”
Charging a high tourist tax (Venice and Dubrovnik are just two examples of European cities taking this path) might pay for some of the damage. But prevention would be better than cure and Easter Island really needs a sound and sustainable plan to ensure that what’s left of its unique culture will survive. Only one part of the Island (Rapa Nui National Park) is currently a World Heritage Site, so maybe UNESCO’s benevolent dictatorship should now step in to protect the whole Island.
Easter Island was “discovered” by the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen, on Easter Sunday 1722. The explorer’s first impression was not of a paradise, but of a land whose “wasted appearance could give no other impression than of a singular poverty and barrenness.” Nearly 300 years later, it would be a catastrophe if today’s scientific understanding of ecosystems could not be applied to saving the Island both for its visitors and its inhabitants.