EASTER ISLAND - A LESSON IN ENVIRONMENTAL EXPLOITATION
Many of us are familiar with Easter Island, but only from its association with the spectacular stone statues known as Moai – a creation of the early Rapa Nui people.
Now a World Heritage Site, Easter Island sits in a remote area of the south-eastern Pacific Ocean, formed as the result of volcanic activity from three extinct coalesced volcanoes 750,000 years ago.
The island was originally populated by Polynesian explorers believed to have journeyed from either the Marquises islands (3200 km away), the Tuamotou islands, Mangareva, 2600 km away) or Pitcairn (2000 km away). Incredibly, these early inhabitants they found their way to Easter Island using only simple wooden canoes or catamarans. Originally the Island was covered by a thick, sub-tropical rainforest which included both palms and hard-woods, but by the time the island was discovered by Europeans in 1722 the Island had become almost totally barren.
The story of this Island is of particular relevance to those concerned with climate change and global warming. This is because recent history shows that Easter Island experienced the collapse of its ecosystem. This resulted in the extinction of many of its prehistoric plant and animal species to the detriment of the local population - an event associated with the over-exploitation of the island's resources.
When Captain Cook visited the island, one of his crew members, who was a Polynesian from Bora Bora, was able to communicate with the Rapa Nui. They found out that the island had a very clear class-based social system, with a King – known as an Ariki – who wielded absolute god-like power. The main element of their life on the island was the cult of the birdman, and a central part of their worship was the production of the massive, ceremonial Moai which are found erected along most of the coastline.
As the islands population grew in size it began to divide into separate clans – each competing for the same natural resources. As these resources began to dwindle an atmosphere of competitive rivalry began amongst the clans who began a self destructive pursuit of building bigger and bigger Moai. This intensified the islanders need for wood from mature trees - one of the islands main resources - essential in the production and placement of the completed Moai.
To move the statues from the island's Rano Raraku quarry in the south-east of the island, the Rapa Nui needed to cut down large trees for use as logs in the construction of long ‘canoe ladders’. This enabled them to carry the massive carvings to the island's coast, but they also needed to manufacture heavy ropes which were made from the fibrous bark of the larger palms.
The scale of operation required to move such enormous stone statues was vast. Research has shown that teams of between 50 and 500 men dragged the statues which weighed anywhere between 10 and 90 tons. Some 887 statues were carved in total, but nearly half of them still remain at the Rano Raraku quarry, which appears to have been abandoned mid-way through production. For transport alone, each statue would have required several trees to be cut down; however other trees would have been taken for housing, fuel and the construction of the large stone platforms, or "ahu", upon which the Moai were placed.
As a result of the steady deforestation, food production began to fall dramatically as crops became exposed to harsh winds and the semi-arid conditions of the region. Starvation and desperation ensued followed by violence clashes as each clan competed against each other for survival. Consequently, the Island population collapsed - unable to sustain itself - from perhaps as many as 15,000 at its peak to just a few thousand at the time of its discovery.
The Easter Island story is not only the most extreme example of forest destruction and its effect on indigenous populations in the Pacific area; it is perhaps the most extreme example in the world. Not only had the islands almost entire forest disappeared, its unique collection of tree species, as well as the animals that lived within them had also become extinct.
The importance of such a story is not lost in this age of modern globalization. With the ever increasing threat of climate change and a rapidly growing world population of more than 6.5 billion people, the parallels between what happened here at Easter Island, and what could happen to the rest of the modern world - if suitable steps aren’t taken quickly enough - are chillingly obvious.