The Rapa Nui have shown us that conservation can protect their ocean – and their culture

Monday, 11 September 2017 08:00 GMT

Rapa Nui men prepare their boats on Easter Island, 4,000 Km (2,400 miles) west of Santiago, Chile, in this 2003 archive photo. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

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Rapa Nui have written a new chapter in their history based upon their cultural values of guardianship, responsibility and accountability for the natural environment

Over a thousand years ago, bold Pacific voyagers traversed a massive blue expanse, teeming with life.  The natural abundance of the ancient world is unimaginable to those of us living today, as our seas have been emptied of the great whales, turtles, sharks, and other large fish.

Using their knowledge of their surroundings, from the direction, time of day, and species of birds they saw flying in the sky, to the location of stars just above the horizon, they sailed across a vast ocean and populated the scattering of islands across the Pacific. They sailed north to Hawaii, south to New Zealand and East to the edge of Polynesia: Rapa Nui.

Known as Easter Island to the western world, Rapa Nui – for which the decedents of these voyagers and their language are also named – is 4,000 kilometers west of mainland Chile. When these voyagers arrived on Rapa Nui, they found an uninhabited island that could sustain and nurture future generations. And there they have lived for centuries.

Today, the Rapa Nui completed a different journey. After five years of work, they succeeded in protecting their ancestral waters. On Saturday, Chilean President Michele Bachelet announced that her government would act on the results of a referendum held on the island, in which the islanders voted in support of the creation of a Rapa Nui Rahui Marine Protected Area (MPA).

The Rahui – named for a traditional practice of protecting an area or region – safeguards the entire exclusive economic zone (EEZ), over 740,000 square kilometers, from industrial commercial fishing, mining and other extractive activities. It also grandfathers in the artisanal fishing practices of the Rapa Nui – fishing from small open boats using hand lines and rocks as weights.

Having seen, first hand, the devastating impacts of overfishing, marine pollution, and warming oceans in the many corners of the world, I could understand the plight the Rapa Nui faced. Their fishermen have seen factory ships on their horizon while themselves catching smaller and fewer fish. This is why, in 2012, the Bertarelli Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts supported them on their journey to reverse this trend and protect their seas.

Even with the fame provided by the Moai carvings – centuries old giant statues that are the centerpiece for Easter Island’s UNESCO World Heritage Site – much of the past of the Rapa Nui remains a mystery. An undeniable aspect however, is a deep connection to the oceans. Forged from their roots as Pacific voyagers, the Rapa Nui maintain cultural expressions of the ocean through art, song and dance.

It is this intrinsic link the Rapa Nui have to the sea that drove an extensive public consultation. More than 100 community meetings took place to discuss ideas for marine protection. They culminated in a proposal for a marine protected area put forward in 2015 by the Te Mau o Te Vaikava o Rapa Nui (Mesa del Mar) -- a coalition of more than 20 local organizations and  local leaders. The coalition also developed an environmental curriculum for the island’s schools and conducted direct household outreach, across the entire island, to strengthen support.

Cultural and ecological degradation are often connected. Fortunately, the reverse is also true and the MPA is indicative of the Rapa Nui’s understanding that conserving their marine environment is a step towards preserving their traditions and way of life. The journey toward the Rapa Nui Rahui is representative of a cultural renaissance across the Pacific Ocean that occurred along with the growing awareness of the importance of protecting the ocean, particularly in creating large marine protected areas.

The Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project filled a supportive niche for the Rapa Nui. It enabled the completion of the most comprehensive scientific assessment of the island’s marine environment and an economic analysis on impacts of an MPA. We were able to provide environmental education and training, facilitating cultural exchanges with other Pacific islanders, and offer first-of-its-kind satellite monitoring assistance for illegal fishing.

The Rapa Nui Rahui Marine Protected Area protects the needs of the indigenous community and the thriving marine ecosystems of Easter Island, which are home to at least 142 endemic species, 27 of which are threatened with extinction.

The Rapa Nui have written a new chapter in their history based upon their cultural values of guardianship, responsibility and accountability for the natural environment. The Rapa Nui Rahui sends a message to the world: large marine protected areas can provide both conservation benefits – safeguarding ocean health, rebuilding species abundance and diversity and providing strengthened resilience to the impacts of climate change – and preserve cultural and traditional practices of coastal and island communities.

This historical moment sets an example for all the indigenous communities around the world that wish to protect their ancestral way of living and protect their legacy.

Dona Bertarelli is the co-president of the Bertarelli Foundation, a philanthropic organization established to implement real change in marine conservation and life science research.