Rapa Nui and Global Pollution: What Waves Can’t Wash Away

Off the coast of Chile, a small island commonly known as “Easter Island” – or Rapa Nui, its native name – sits in the temperate Pacific, famous for its unique stone statues, carved by the ancient people of the island. But a culture of indigenous people is being threatened – along with the beautiful coastal environment they’ve inhabited for thousands of years – by a major pollutant: plastic.

Rapa Nui islanders have throughout history lived hand in glove with the local environment, until – a generation ago – globalization arrived. With this seismic change came not just tourism, international recognition and economic benefit, but also an ancillary environmental catastrophe brought on by overuse of local resources and the island as an end-point for unprecedented quantities of single-use plastics. 

Globally, about 91% of all plastic is actually not recycled, according to a December 2018 study by Great Britain’s Royal Statistical Society. Some plastics take centuries to degrade fully, meaning most plastic still exists in some form today. On Easter Island, the tourism industry has brought money and business to the community, but at the expense of the waste that comes with the crowded planes.

Now, in the face of existential challenges the likes of which Rapa Nui never seen before, some islanders are responding with social and environmental initiatives to mitigate and address these problems in a variety of ways. Among this new generation of civic leaders, perhaps none are as central to the island’s response as Mahani Teave and Enrique Icka.

It’s so crucial “to be able to let people know how important it is to be able to generate our own food on the island and how the impact is so big,” says Teave (pronounced Te-A-Ve). An island “with a smaller carbon footprint, which means not having to bring things from the continent on the airplane: Less waste because there’s less packaging. Much healthier ways of eating and thus much healthier people. Less sickness, less having to invest in the health of the citizens. And it’s also giving labor to the local people.” 

To help offset the enormous amount of waste impacting the island, Teave and Icka brought the community together to build an Earthship Biosphere, a building completely self-sustaining and constructed from re-used materials otherwise discarded as garbage. The school was built using 2,500 tires, 40,000 tin cans, 12 tons of cardboard, 12 tons of recycled plastic and 25,000 glass bottles. 

The school, operating solely on donations through crowdfunding – and forming part of Plastic Ocean International’s seminal Blue Communities socio-environmental program – focuses on keeping the Rapa Nui culture alive through its music and language. The first language of many residents is Spanish, as the small island is a part of Chile. Older Rapanui still remember the traditional language, but a clear generational divide is causing the native traditions and practices to be forgotten. 

“I think that the role of the music today more than ever is extremely important. I think this time of the pandemic is a time of stress and worries for the adults and the music is the best way to keep the children, in a way, emotionally contained and having some kind of normality in their life,” says Teave. “I think there’s nothing better than music to soothe the hearts of the children and accompany them also through this whole process. Their instruments become their friends and we struggled a lot in the previous months trying to make our school float again and pulling ourselves together. It has been a really difficult process.”

But through their hard work and advocating for sustainability within their island community, Teave and Icka have been the primary example that pollution can help be a part of the solution. Even on such a remote island, the NGO Toki Rapa Nui school provides an example of sustainability and cultural preservation for other communities with similar issues. Even on one of the most remote places on earth, the solutions to society’s problems lie in community, it seems. 

For Times Media Mexico
Elena Golubovich

The Yucatan Times
Newsroom



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