13 Dec 2018 Story Oceans & seas

Remote island of Rapa Nui combines traditional knowledge with science to tackle environmental challenges

Waves break furiously against the coast and cliffs of Rapa Nui, better known as Easter Island, the most remote inhabited island on the planet.

Camilo Rapu, Director of the Rapa Nui National Park, points to some ancient petroglyphs perched on the edge of an eroding cliff. “We have already lost invaluable pieces carved in rocks here. They simply collapsed into the sea because of the power of the waves,” he says.

Sea-level rise is threatening the unique patrimony of this island, located in the Pacific Ocean, 3,700 kilometres from the coast of continental Chile. Increasingly stronger waves are eroding petroglyphs and moai, the island’s iconic colossal statues that represent ancestors, as well as the platforms, or ahu, on which they stand.

Around 900 moai and 300 ahu were crafted by descendants of settlers from Eastern Polynesia between the eleventh and seventeenth centuries, shaping an unrivalled landscape in Rapa Nui.

These archeological jewels are listed as UNESCO World Heritage, and represent the main attraction for tourism, which the island’s economy relies heavily on.

As other island communities in the Pacific Ocean, Rapa Nui faces the adverse impact of climate change, the plastic tide and other environmental challenges, and is searching for innovative solutions to tackle them.

“As islanders, we are very much aware of climate change. One of the gravest consequences is the erosion of our archeological sites. We risk losing our cultural heritage. That is why we need to think different and look for innovative ways to preserve it,” says Camilo Rapu, who also leads the community Mau Henua, which gathers islanders of Rapa Nui descent in charge of managing the park since 2016.

Around 40 per cent of the 8,000 inhabitants of the island are Rapanuis.

A seawall to stop the waves has been built in a site known as Runga Va’e. Other solutions are being discussed, such as using more stable stones to anchor the petroglyphs. However, much more will be needed for the islanders to adapt to the two worst effects of climate change: coastal inundation and water scarcity.

“It no longer rains as it used to, and our traditional agriculture is being affected,” says Juan Haoa, who leads an agroecological project at Toki, a local organization. The ancestral Rapanui method was built on the manavai, or the stone walls which retained soil moisture and protected the sweet potato, taro, yam and sugarcane crops. The walls were situated in low and shady spots. 

Manavai are still used today, but due to lack of water, the system proves less efficient than in the past. Juan Haoa is combining traditional knowledge with science to identify new strategies to produce more and diversify the crops. He has only one goal in mind: contribute to the island’s food security.

Haoa is using a rainwater harvesting system for the new crops, which include vegetables and fruits never grown on the island before. 

“Ninety-five per cent of all our food comes from the continent—we cannot afford to be so dependent anymore. The island has the potential to be self-sufficient. We need to preserve our ancient traditions but work at the same time on guaranteeing our food security, and why not, one day think in exporting our products,” says Haoa.

At the National Park, which covers around 40 per cent of the island and receives 100,000 visitors every year, several clean technologies are also being implemented: ecological toilets, solar panels and biodigesters.

“No one is better suited than the homeowner to take care of this heritage. Little by little, we have been installing new technology in the park,” states Lavinia Paté, Deputy Director of the Rapa Nui Park.

Cheap, easy to manage and to be moved around, biodigesters break down food scraps and other organic material, and harvest the methane that they produce.  They then generate biogas that can be used for cooking, and replace wood-burning stoves. At least six biodigesters have been installed in park-keepers’ facilities around the Rapa Nui Park, which also has solar panels. 

In November, the first photovoltaic plant, with a 400-panel installation and a 100 Kw capacity, began operating. The solar plant will replace at least eight per cent of the diesel consumption on the island.

At the park, there are no trash bins. The Rapa Nui community simply expects tourists not to produce waste or dispose of it at the hotels’ recycling bins. Plastic bags are now regulated in the island, and its inhabitants are trying to comply with the nationwide ban on these single-use plastics items.  

Chile produces 3.2 billion plastic bags every year, and only around 10 per cent is recycled. The legislation enacted in August gives six months to large businesses and two years to small shops to phase out the use of plastic bags.

Rapa Nui, as other iconic remote islands, such as the Galapagos archipelago in Ecuador, is no stranger to the plastic tide. Around 13 million tonnes of plastic are dumped in the ocean every year and powerful currents transport the debris to the most isolated corners of the planet.

Rapa Nui is tiny, with only 16,628 hectares, but the fishing debris derived from unsustainable practices and trash from visiting cruises reaches all its shores. The sand in Anakena, the main beach in the island, is full of microplastics.

At a recycling centre called Orito, 20 tonnes of plastic, cardboard and aluminum waste is collected and sent by plane every month to continental Chile to be recycled. It accounts for around 10 per cent of all the waste generated on the island. The rest goes to a landfill.

“We are also collecting batteries, oils, tyres and electronic waste and we are looking for partnerships with companies in Chile or other countries than can take care of that waste,” says Marco Haoa, Operations Manager at the plant.

“Our goal is to ship all recyclable waste to the continent by 2020,” he assures.

In February, Chile gained worldwide applause when it declared a marine protected area of 724,000 km2 in Rapa Nui, one of the largest in the region. Fishing and extractive industries will be banned within the area, but artisanal Rapanui methods for catching fish will be promoted. The Rapanuis will participate in the management of this marine area, as they already do in the terrestrial reserve.

“It is a great step,” says Pedro Edmunds Paoa, mayor of Rapa Nui. “The challenge now is to try to remember and ask ourselves: What did our ancestors do to protect the sea? What comes to mind is the Rapanui concept of “tapu” which means fishing closures. Centuries ago, they already allowed stocks to replenish,” he says.

Traditional knowledge offers an unparalleled perspective for marine management in communities with strong ties with the sea.

From Palau, to Hawaii and Guam, several islands in the Pacific, as Rapa Nui, are trying to bolster local livelihoods though innovation while preserving their millenary practices.

“We are ready to search for innovative solutions, to show the world that, though we are so isolated, we can take care of this small place that belongs to everyone,” says Lavinia Paté.


Ahead of the United Nations Environment Assembly next March, UN Environment is urging people to Think Beyond and Live Within. Join the debate on social media using #SolveDifferentto share your stories and see what others are doing to ensure a sustainable future for our planet.