The moai statues of Easter Island, or Rapa Nui in the indigenous tongue of the island, have enthralled and mystified outsiders since Europeans first arrived to this speck of land in the middle of the Pacific some 300 years ago.
At that time, the island was entirely devoid of trees, and only the supernatural could explain how these 887 monoliths – the tallest at 33 feet (10 mt) and the heaviest 86 tons – were constructed and transported around what is the most remote inhabited place on Earth.
Since then, years of research led to the theory that a once lush, subtropical island was stripped of trees to use as rollers in transporting the Maoi, leading to a collapse of the ecosystems and, eventually, the civilization that produced these architectural marvels.
The story has made Rapa Nui a poster child of the perils of environmental exploitation.
Now, an ambitious reforestation project is placing the remote island at the center of a global initiative to care for the environment and preserve its ecosystems.
Organized by the Chilean Forestry Corporation (Conaf), the “Environmental Recuperation of Rapa Nui” effort aims to reforest 3,707 acres (1,500 hectares) of land, and rehabilitate the ecosystems of the island.
One of those projects is connecting local authorities, community groups and schools from the area with international volunteers, in one of the most environmentally degraded parts of the island.
Called Umanga Mo Te Natura (“Working Together for Nature,” in Rapa Nui) the projects focus on the Poike peninsula on the southeast side of the island, which has lost more than 13 feet (4 m) of soil to erosion, in some places going right down to the bedrock.
“It is important to regenerate these soils quickly,” Anthony Dubois, representative of ONF International, which is involved in managing the project, told La Tercera.
“The idea is to regenerate a cover of vegetation, to protect the soil from rain, the erosion of water and of wind. This work is urgent, because every year that we wait is time lost.”
Fortunately quick action has been taken; last year five groups replanted upwards of 6,000 aito and dodonea trees, covering a total of nearly 15 acres (6 hectares).
Umanga Mo Te Natura aims to improve upon those figures this year, recovering 62 acres (25 hectares) and over 40,000 plants, including shrubs native to Polynesia.
The peninsula is also an important cultural and archaeological site, and park rangers guide volunteers through some of the most historic areas before beginning to work.
“I never imagined that I would be able to plant a tree in Rapa Nui, it has been a really exciting and important experience for me, I will go back to my country and tell all my friends about it, so that when they come, they can also take part in this,” said French tourist Ange Boutin.
The next planting at the Poike peninsula will be on July 27. For more information see the projects website (in Spanish).