Rapa Nui: An Island Destroyed By Deforestation

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The ancient monuments of Rapa Nui (commonly known as Easter Island off the coast of Chile) have captured the imagination of western people since the island was first discovered in 1722 by Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen. Arriving on Easter Sunday, the strong surf and lack of natural anchorage prevented Roggeveen and his crew from landing on the island for a week. During the interval, they pondered the lonely crest of land from a distance, impressed but also mystified by the remarkable stone statues (called moai) lining the hills. Obviously it took an advanced civilization to create such massive sculptures, yet there was little visible evidence of such a culture. The only sign of habitation was the occasional camp fire and a native man who paddled out to Roggeveen’s ships in a small canoe.

When the Dutch explorers finally made it to land, they found a rich soil and a tropical climate which meant good, year-round rainfall. Yet there were no large trees for building either homes or boats that would withstand the open sea. With the closest land being modern day Chile some 2,300 miles (3,700 km) away, it was virtually impossible for the people of Rapa Nui to fish on the open sea, trade with others, or even escape the island.

So what happened? It would take centuries for scientists to piece together the puzzle of Rapa Nui’s ravaged environment, but most agree the island did not originally look like it did in Roggeveen’s day – or today.

It is most likely that the people of Rapa Nui caused the deforestation of the island. The native palm trees were felled to clear farm land, to make rollers to move the giant moai, and for a variety of daily uses. But the islanders cut down the trees faster than new ones could grow, and since the island was an enclosed and isolated ecosystem, once the trees were gone there was no natural way to replenish them. Researchers from the University of Hawaii also theorized the islanders may have further contributed to the deforestation through the introduction of an invasive species of rat they brought with them when they first settled Rapa Nui from Polynesia. The rodent fed on the nuts dropped by the palm trees, which prevented them from seeding.

Today, Rapa Nui remains an island almost completely barren of trees. A reforestation process has now begun on Rapa Nui, but it will take generations for the island to return to its historic appearance. You can learn more about these restoration efforts on the Cousteau Society website.

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