Easter Island: A Microcosm Of The World’s Problems?

Easter Island

Easter Island is the second island in the island series: the remotest island on the planet. It is around 2300 km from the nearest land in Chile and is situated in the Pacific Ocean. Rapa Nui is the local name. The volcanic island measures about 24.6 km (15.3 miles) long by 12.3 km (7.6 miles) wide. Polynesia was the last place in the globe to be colonised and Easter Island was the last of the Polynesian islands: it was colonised from the west.

The islanders created giant statues called Moai. The reason for their creation is uncertain. They are distributed around the island.

The island was originally covered by palm trees but now is virtually free from natural woodlands. The original population disappeared from the island but it is not sure whey they left or abandoned the island. One idea is that the construction of the statues led to the deforestation. Between 1250-1650 there was much clearing of the natural woodland. The ecology degraded and the soil was eroded. There is an account of warfare on the island caused by the ensuing crisis, although this is debated strongly by academics. Lithic mulching, a process to protect the soil by rock was pioneered on Easter Island to allow growing of crops. It is a unique response to growing crops on a harsh island environment. Crops were supplemented by fish from the Pacific Ocean.

In 1722 the Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen, and crew, discovered the island on Easter Sunday and was the first European to visit. The name Easter Island came from this visit. They were met by islanders who appeared to be well fed. After this visit the island appeared upon European maps. Roggeveen reported that the island was flourishing.

Wikipedia suggests that the population declined precipitously more than once due to environmental degradation and deforestation. This history is complex and not fully known, but may have been more related to external influences and control of the island. There were incidents of devastating smallpox epidemics when that disease was brought in by outsiders. The local population had little immunity to the disease and was soon depleted with many dying. Fifty years later, when Captain Cook visited the island the population was not as healthy as it had been.

External people took advantage of the islanders and largely destroyed, either inadvertently or deliberately the local culture. Europeans were not familiar with managing the island like the islanders: Jean-Baptiste Dutrou-Bornier had bought up the island and in the 1860’s largely took over without any legitimacy. He created a sheep ranch that further degraded the land and restricted the local population to live in the main town. The indigenous population declined significantly.

Today the island has a very long runway that was extended to enable a space shuttle to land there in an emergency and is mainly dependent upon tourism. Tourists arrive by aeroplane. The island is considered to be a unique ecoregion along with nearest neighbour Isla Sala y Gómez which is 415 kilometres (258 miles) to the east. The ecoregion’s Rapa Nui subtropical broadleaf forests is now, ironically, extinct on the island.

Easter Island may have been prone to the vulnerabilities of over population and resource depletion and this, along with disease, could have affected the island during several points in its history. The fact that the island is so remote also meant that people could not leave easily to escape disease or famine. It is, perhaps, more likely that the arrival of Europeans and the takeover by Chile in 1888 all were factors that reduced the ability of the island to sustain a population by inappropriate land use and from the influx of diseases that adversely affected the local population. In many respects Easter Island is a microcosm of the world’s problems of globalisation and inappropriate development that is not sustainable. It is a complex picture that can only be considered in a wider global context.

Further information can be found at the Rapa Nui web site.

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About mappedit

Geographical practitioner with an interest in climate change, open mapping, sustainability, the transition movement, transport and many other things.
This entry was posted in Islands, Resources, Sustainable Development and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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