Easter Island: Conservation Efforts, Challenges: Conflicts between Islanders and Chile Hinder Preservation

A View of the Monuments of Easter Island, Rapanui, c. 1775–1776 by William Hodges.[24] The earliest known painting of Easter Island.

There are ongoing initiatives to conserve and restore the stone head sculptures of Easter Island, but tensions between islanders and Chile threaten efforts to do more.

A significant roadblock to cultural heritage preservation is often in the form of tensions between the local communities that feel the effects of preservation or neglect of monuments or sites that are deeply important to them and the centralized government that controls the purse strings. Easter island, called Rapa Nui by its inhabitants, is an example of this tension.

Conservation Efforts on Easter Island

On December 1, 2009, the World Monument Fund and American Express announced that they had partnered with the National Forestry Corporation of Chile to develop a sustainable visitor reception center on Easter Island. The project will enhance “adaptive reuse and sustainable tourism.” The press release indicates that the plans for the reception center are already finalized and that construction will begin early this year.

In November 2008, the Archaeological Institute of America announced its selection of the moai – the iconic giant head sculptures of Easter Island – and the national park on the island as the AIA’s next site preservation project. To that end, the AIA has provided a $94,000 grant to the Easter Island Statue Project for the conservation of two of the moai in the Rano Raruki interior quarry. Techniques will be developed to preserve the volcanic rock from which the moai were made and slow the rapid corrosion of the sculptures brought on by climate change, the effects of tourism, and the fragile nature of the rock itself. Those techniques will then be used to save many of the 1,000 other sculptures on the island.

Conservation Challenges on Easter Island

Both the WMF/American Express and AIA press releases correctly identify the location of their projects as Easter Island, Chile. The AIA press release also states that, in addition to conserving the sculptures, the project will “demonstrate that successful and sustainable preservation requires the empowerment of, and economic development for, local communities.”

As Shakespeare famously wrote, there’s the rub: Rapa Nui has long chafed under the control of Santiago, 3,500 km away, and Chile has often neglected or refused to provide sufficient funding for the preservation and restoration of the moai. The sculptures are more than the island’s main tourist draw; they also have deep cultural and historic significance to the natives of Rapa Nui.

According to “Easter Island: The Heritage and its Conservation,” by A. Elena Charola, (WMF, August 1994), up until 1965, when the inhabitants of Rapa Nui were granted Chilean citizenship and the attendant constitutional rights, the Chilean government viewed the island as an exploitable resource. For example, there had been an attempt to push through a project for the construction of a large hotel on Easter Island’s sole beach, and motorcycle meets on the island had been a regular occurrence. Charola wrote that the overlapping jurisdictions of Chile’s ministries complicated its governance of the island. For a long time, Easter Island lacked a permanent conservator and facilities to monitor the moai, and there was a chronic lack of park rangers.

Charola further reported that, although an international group of stone experts that convened on Rapa Nui in the late 1980s at the behest of the WMF had recommended the establishment and implementation of a master plan to address conservation issues, as of 1994 there had been little movement by Santiago toward that goal.

Fortunately, over the years that situation has been changing, as evidenced by the WMF/American Express, AIA and other conservation projects. But John H. Stubbs, vice president for field projects for the WMF, has observed that conflicts still arise because the inhabitants of Rapa Nui do not like the fact that their island is a possession of Chile.

“They (the Rapa Nuis) do not want to work for the Chilean Ministry of Culture,” said Stubbs on September 24, 2009 as a guest speaker at an event at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick, N.J. “They feel that since they built the place in the first instance and it is their birthplace and where they live, they should be in charge,” Stubbs explained.

Challenges Should Not Defeat Conservation on Easter Island

As stated in the AIA press release, the Easter Island Statue Project is part of the AIA’s “long-term conservation strategy to combat the loss of the world’s priceless cultural heritage.” Preserving items and sites of cultural significance and preventing them from being destroyed by war, natural disaster, looting, vandalism, and neglect is unquestionably a sound goal.

The permanent loss of the moai – with their mystique and their evocation of the sacrifices endured by their creators – would be a tragic deprivation for future generations of people on and off the island. For this reason, the tensions between Rapa Nui and Chile cannot be allowed to interfere with conservation efforts on the island in the years to come.