Easter Island’s famous statues not only attract tourists, but also symbolize ancestral values and even drive many sustainable initiatives.

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“They are even grander than I imagined” Floris whispers, his eyes fixed on the row of giant stone statues. Some are ten meters high and weigh many tons. “They seem out of this world”, Ivar comments, mesmerised. The statues, known as moai, are the pre-eminent symbols of Easter Island. What’s more, they embody its magical aura. While they leave visitors like us under a spell, for Easter Island’s native people they symbolize ancestral energy, as we would find out. Could such spiritual beliefs be useful to tackle current-day sustainability challenges?

Unique Polynesian Achievement

Excited and proud to have reached the most remote inhabited island in the world on our own keel, we dropped our anchor here after 18 days and more than 2,100 nautical miles at sea. Yet we realize how easy it was for us to find this island with the help of GPS and digital nautical charts. It makes us wonder how the original inhabitants ever found this dot in the Pacific Ocean, about the size of the Dutch island of Texel. Genetic, linguistic and archaeological research suggests that they were Polynesians. Around 1,100 AD a group of them landed here after sailing thousands of miles in a sort of catamaran, never knowing for sure that there would be an island here. The fact that contact with the outside world only took place some six centuries later underlines how unique their achievement was.

Exhaustion of A Paradise

Because of their isolation, the settlers of Rapa Nui, as they called the island, had to be self-sufficient. Modern research has established that before the arrival of people dozens of species of subtropical trees and plants covered the land, including large palm trees. Tens of species of birds also lived on and around the island. It must have been a paradise for the settlers. Unfortunately, the trees and birds disappeared. As a result, the islanders were faced with major challenges, such as food shortages and internal conflict. What happened and how the islanders dealt with the ecological and social crises is relevant for our human civilization today. Just like Easter Island is a small oasis in the vast Pacific Ocean, our earth is an isolated liveable planet in the endless universe. It faces similar challenges to the ones Easter Island once did.

Time of Scarcity

To learn more about the islanders’ history we cycle to numerous archaeological sites. We read books, articles, and visit the local history museum. The findings of a small army of scientists who have endeavoured to unravel the mysterious history of Easter Island help us paint the following picture. The islanders built the moai to honour influential ancestors. Over time, they built bigger and bigger moai, which took an increasing amount of manpower and thus food. They used wood to transport the moai, build ships, and make fire, which made this once abundant resource scarce. Rats, which had sailed with the Polynesians to Rapa Nui, did the rest. With tree seeds and bird eggs as their favourite diet, they contributed to the complete deforestation of the island and the extinction of almost all birds. This ecological crisis made it increasingly difficult to build seaworthy vessels for fishing, transport the ever-larger moai, and feed the island population. Social unrest arose and the production of moai abruptly stopped. To this day, the unfinished moai in the island’s former quarry are a silent testament to this drama.

Resourcefulness and Innovation

Yet the misery caused by ecosystem destruction is only part of the story. The hundreds of moai that were built prove that Rapa Nui’s civilization had developed to a sophisticated level. With dedication, collaboration, and ingenious technology the islanders succeeded in making the statues in a quarry, moving them all over the island, and erecting them on elevated sites. Another impressive achievement is that the islanders were able to adjust their diet and farming methods. Archaeological research shows that when they ran out of birds and sea fish, they switched to eating more shellfish and rat meat. The more trees disappeared, the more the wind got a grip on crops and fertile soil eroded. In response, the islanders built ingenious stone circles around their produce. These kept the soil moist and protected soil and crop against the wind. That explains why the islanders were well-fed and cheerful, according to the report of the first meeting with outsiders.

Disastrous Contacts

On Easter Sunday, 5 April 1722, three Dutch ships led by Jacob Roggeveen stumbled upon Rapa Nui by chance. He called it Easter Island and that is how the island became known. During this “acquaintance”, at least ten islanders were reportedly shot dead. Later contacts with outsiders turned out to be even more disastrous. Slavery and introduced diseases reduced the original population from several thousand to just 110 in 1877. Thus, while many doom stories about Rapa Nui’s intriguing history focus on the islanders’ own role, there is convincing evidence that rats and plundering capitalists significantly contributed to the ecological and social crises that ravaged the island. All the while, the islanders proved to be resourceful and resilient. Those values seem to provide a kind of spiritual compass for the current generation of islanders.

Symbol For Harmony

“The moai symbolize the mana, energy and values of our ancestors,” Leonardo solemnly explains. His remark fascinates us. Known the world over as Easter Island’s main tourist attraction, to the native population the moai are important manifestations of their culture and history. Leonardo Pakarati makes films about the island and its heritage. One of them, “Te Kuhane o te Tupana” (The Spirit of Our Ancestors), is about his mission to return a moai from the British museum to Easter Island. When we meet him, he explains that it’s about more than the return of the island’s patrimony. “The moai were not made for a museum, but to stand outside as representatives of ancestors. The mana which they hold and represent keeps everything in balance. So if a moai is removed, the island loses some of its spirit. Its people become unbalanced. You could even say that such loss of spirituality leads to conflict. When that happens, things like wealth and which car you drive become important. You lose sight of what really counts: living harmoniously with each other and nature and being happy with what you have. That’s the situation we are in now.”

According to Leonardo, returning the moai and other artefacts would have so much symbolic value that it would restore the mana. “It would certainly help to get more harmony and cooperation in the community”, he adds. “We desperately need those ancestral values to end human conflict and the depletion of our earth.”

Music School As An Instrument

A return to ancestral values sounds good, but how does that work in practice? Carolina Campos, director of music school Toki, has concrete examples. She, too, starts off with a reference to the past. “To preserve traditional culture and protect the environment we draw inspiration from our ancestors. After all, they were self-sustaining for centuries. At this music school we teach the children the traditional ways and values through lessons about music, the local language, and culture, because that connects people. In addition, the children learn to be self-sufficient in our organic fruit and vegetable garden, where we combine techniques from the past with modern agro-ecology principles.” The school building also plays an important role. Carolina continues. “It is an Earthship, built with natural and recycled materials, equipped with solar panels and a rainwater collection system. It’s an example of sustainable architecture and self-sufficiency.”

And what does Toki mean? Carolina: “Toki is the name of the tool to make the moai. The music, the organic garden, and the building are our tools or instruments to shape the children into future sustainability leaders.” Almost philosophically, Carolina concludes: “Everyone can be a toki, a tool, to create a balanced and self-sufficient society!” With that she segues from drawing inspiration from ancestral values to taking individual responsibility nowadays.

Self-Aware Generation

Tavake Pacomio, in her thirties, born and raised on the island, takes that responsibility seriously. While we try to avoid the breaking waves with our kayak on our way to shore, Tavake looks for them. She gives surfing lessons (at Vai Manu Surf Experience) and loves the sea. With other activists she has been advocating for years to protect a large marine area around the island from industrial fishing and mining activities. What drives her? “My family taught me Polynesian values, including respect for and protection of mother earth”, she explains. “I love this island and intend to stay here. That’s why I want to better protect the environment. I feel strongly that we have to give back to the earth what we take from her. After all, our livelihoods depend on nature.”

Her commitment is paying off. An area as large as France around the island has been designated as marine protected area. “For even better protection it should actually be a national park, so our fight continues. If we don’t take better care of the earth, our days are counted here. Our ancestors have handed over this unpolluted island to us and that is how we should pass it on to future generations”, she concludes.

Cycling to Safeguard the Mana

Ancestral values also inspire Francisco Haoa Hotus, the director of the arts and culture organization  We largely have him to thank for the fact that we can ride on cycle paths and park our bicycles in beautifully designed bicycle stands. “With our organization, we are committed to sustainable transport because we want to pass on our planet to the next generation, just like we received it from our ancestors.” They launched an initiative to stimulate cycling: Haka Teka. “We teach the children that walking and cycling is better than driving. For their health, the environment, the safety on the roads, and their happiness. On a small island like ours you don’t need a car at all!” Being Dutch we understand him well and Francisco even went to the Netherlands to see examples of bicycle infrastructure and policy.

However, in Chile cycling is still not very common. What motivates him? “Rapa Nui is where I was born. Here is where my ancestors arrived nine centuries ago. We, the native population, have no other home, just as all of humankind has no other planet. If we don’t take good care of our island and pollute it, we can’t go anywhere else where we feel at home. Here on Rapa Nui are our moai, here is our mana. If we have to abandon the island and leave our mana behind, we will lose our soul.”

Celebrating Traditional Values

The four islanders we interviewed are certainly not alone in their strong feelings about the island’s traditions and values. For two weeks during the annual Tapati festival, the island is in celebration mode. Rapa Nui heritage features prominently in the programme: the past is celebrated with traditional music and dance performances, sporting events, and a display of artisanal handicraft. Intertwined are more modern performances, often with folkloric elements. This way, the islanders not only respect but also maintain the culture and traditions that connect them. It seems to reinforce their sense of community; everyone we talk to is involved in the festival in one way or another and gets a smile on their face when they talk about the celebrations.

Ancestral Values Driving Sustainability

The still important, symbolic value of the moai, their mana, and the prominent place of folklore and music show how much the ancestors inspire the current generation of Rapa Nui inhabitants. The four islanders we spoke to were, each in their own way, advocates for environmental protection and a harmonious society. For them, the ancestral values work as guidance, driving many initiatives that strive towards a more sustainable island. Central to this view is that they perceive Rapa Nui as their island, from which they draw their ancestral energy and sense of solidarity. To preserve it for future generations, a healthy environment and living together in harmony are important conditions.

Although Rapa Nui has a unique history, also elsewhere people can draw on ancestral values. Cooperation, innovation and tolerance have helped our ancestors weather many storms. These are values that we will surely need to create an ecologically sound and socially fair society.

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