Cultural destruction in Rapa Nui: Environmental colonialism and climate change

Master of Development Studies Candidate Maria Soruco analyses the impacts of climate change on the identity and heritage of the Rapanui people living on the Island of Rapa Nui, Chile.

‘Moaia at Rapa Nui National Park, Easter Island (Isla de Pascua), Chile.’ Image by Anton Ivanov. Sourced via Shutterstock, stock photo ID: 240202525.

The Anthropocene is creating serious changes in the environment and people’s lives. Climate change, in particular, is generating more inequality across the world and is affecting vulnerable communities on a larger scale. This is the case of Rapa Nui,1 one of the most remote islands in the world located at 3,600 kilometres off the coast of Chile. The Island has a triangular shape with a maximum length of 24 kilometres and 12 kilometres at its most width with a total surface of 173 km2. Rapa Nui was populated around 400 AD, being one of the last regions of the earth to be inhabited, and in 1888 the Island was annexed to the State of Chile, which leased it to foreigner’s companies as a sheep farm. (Santana et al., 2011, p. 193). Resource exploitation, slave trades, foreign diseases, the arrival of Catholic missionaries and, finally, capitalist and national investments caused damage to both the population and the environment (Cristino, et al, 2011, p. 11).

On top of these colonial injustices, the factor of climate change continues to create the same vulnerability to indigenous peoples, who hold little decision-making abilities due to the blurry lines of self-determination and sovereignty in the territory. The legacy of the environmental colonialism includes “historical under-representation in environmental decision making and the gross historical distributive inequities in consumption and production” (Figueroa, 2011, p. 235). On the Island, an environmental justice framework addressing those aspects is still lacking. And if one were to be implemented, a distributive justice scheme should not only consider land repossession but also return land ownership to the Rapanui, as well as their social, cultural and political autonomy.

Regarding repossession of the land, the Chilean State has a program of “management, administration and disposition of fiscal property in Easter Island” consisting in the transferring of land to Rapanui families (González, 2011, p. 325). However, the described program of land distribution has received serious criticism, particularly regarding the modality of assignment of the land, given that it has no relation to the tribal jurisdictional distribution that characterises the Rapanui people. Critics such as Gonzalez (2011) and Baartmas (2013, p. 16) point out that this privatisation allows the concentration of property in the hands of the wealthiest sectors of Rapa Nui. Also, the designation of different territories as “protected areas” or “productive areas” is selecting territories based on external perceptions and the value that others give to the land, instead of considering what specific territories mean for the Rapanui. The latter continues to contribute to the disappearance of their culture and the violation of their rights.

Furthermore, according to González, for the Rapanui is not only to return them a portion of land that once belonged to them, but it is about revitalising the “Kaiŋa”, a concept that refers to the territory occupied by a clan and the “mother’s womb”. Rapanui, as a culture, builds its foundations on the constant revitalisation of the past, which is why ancestral tradition is of great importance: to know the origin of the land, the clan to which once belonged, and therefore their territory. Territoriality is a fundamental part of the identity of each family and climate change is destroying this tradition.

Climate change is endangering both the environmental identity and environmental heritage of the Island; the former understood as the “amalgamation of cultural identities, ways of life, and self-perception that are connected to a given group’s physical environment” and the latter as “meanings and symbols of the past that frame values, practices, and places peoples wish to preserve as members of a community” (Figueroa, 2011, p. 233). Today, the Moai (stone statues) and traditional buriers are collapsing due to sea-level rise, threatening the remains of that civilisation to disappear (UN News, May 2016). Moreover, not only are the coasts being damaged, but the whole ecosystems of the island. According to the “World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate Report”, the primary impacts of climate change on Rapa Nui are projected to be water shortages, sea-level rise, coastal inundation and erosion (2016 p. 71).

Climate change mitigation and adaptation policies must be addressed with a focus on Justice and Governance, where the notions of identity and tradition of the Rapanui are understood as intrinsically connected to the environment. Cultural acknowledgement, inclusion and respect, as well as political engagement should be considered at all levels of public policy. Rapa Nui is just one example among many others in which indigenous rights had been historically neglected and that now are facing not only the environmental consequences of colonialism but also cultural losses due to climate change that are not yet being addressed, which threatens not only the environment but the disappearance of an entire population.


1.This blog will follow the current convention, found in most publications, of writing Easter Island’s Polynesian name in Chilean fashion as Rapa Nui, its people and language as Rapanui (Fisher, 2006).


Baartmans, C. (2013). Rapa Nui: the struggle for indigenous land rights on Easter Island. An analysis of the Chilean Supreme Court decision in the Hito case of 2012 and conjunction with the contemporary international legal framework. Access here.
Cristino, C., Fuentes, M. (2011). The Exploiting Company of Easter Island. Heritage, Memory and Identity in Rapa Nui. In [Original book in Spanish] La Compañía Explotadora de Isla de Pascua. Patrimonio, Memoria e Identidad en Rapa Nui.
González, P. (2011). Relationship between the Chilean State and the RapaNui People from a legal perspective: State of law or only for continental ones? The Exploiting Company of Easter Island. Heritage, Memory and Identity in Rapa Nui. In [Original title in Spanish] Modos de vida y condiciones de salud en Rapa Nui Durante el período de la Compañía Explotadora. La Compañía Explotadora de Isla de Pascua. Patrimonio, Memoria e Identidad en Rapa Nui. Access here.
Fischer, Steven. (2006). Island at the End of the World: The Turbulent History of Easter Island. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Figueroa, Robert. (2011). ‘Indigenous Peoples and Cultural Losses’ (pp. 233-247) in Dryzek, J. S., Norgaard, R. B., & Schlosberg, D. (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society. Oxford University Press.
Santana, F., Retamal, R.., and Fuentes, M. (2011). Life and health conditions in Rapa Nui during the period of the Exploiting Company. The Exploiting Company of Easter Island. Heritage, Memory and Identity in Rapa Nui. In [Original title in Spanish] Modos de vida y condiciones de salud en Rapa Nui Durante el período de la Compañía Explotadora. La Compañía Explotadora de Isla de Pascua. Patrimonio, Memoria e Identidad en Rapa Nui. Access here.  
World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate Report. (2016). Published by the United Nations Environment Programme. Access here.
The United Nations. (2016). World Heritage sites at risk from climate change – joint UN report. Un News (May 27, 2016). Access here.
Nicholas Casey. (2018). Easter Island Is Eroding. The New York Times (March 15, 2018). Access here.

Maria Soruco is a Chilean student in her last semester of the Master of Development Studies from the Department of Anthropology, School of Political and Social Sciences at the University of Sydney. Her ongoing thesis talks about the shifting notions of nature and the land in Rapa Nui, the problem of environmental colonialism and future prospects in decolonising the biocultural heritage of the Island.

This blog is a part of SEI’s Student Blog Series, which features original content by Honours, Masters and PhD students at the University of Sydney who are undertaking research on environmental issues and topics. If you are a current postgraduate student at the University of Sydney who would like to participate in the series, click here for details.