altar at Easter Island's Anakena site, where Sergio Rapu
led the 1978 restoration and re-erection of seven of the
island's gigantic carved "moai." Photo courtesy
of Clive Ruggles.
student and former governor Sergio Rapu grapples with taking
Easter Island into the 21st century
15 November 2002
By Bonnie Azab Powell, Public Affairs
- Rotary World Peace Scholar Sergio Rapu is a little different
from your typical UC Berkeley student.
he has a few more gray hairs. The 53-year-old father of two
college-age children, Rapu is both paternal toward and in
awe of his fellow students: "I feel like their daddy,
but they are all such bright kids — smarter than me,"
he says. His energy is boundless: twice a day he walks up
and down the steep hill from the International House to the
Berkeley BART station just for exercise. And even amid Berkeley's
celebrated diversity, Rapu's birthplace qualifies as exotic:
Easter Island, home to the famous moai — those enigmatic,
monolithic stone heads — and one of the world's most
geographically isolated places, all alone in the South Pacific.
we don't solve these problems of development versus conservation,
we may face the island spoiled totally, turned into a
shantytown rather than a beautiful, open-air museum, simply
because we didn't learn to take care of it ahead of time.'
—Sergio Rapu, Rotary World Peace Scholar. (Photo
a safe bet that he's the only former governor currently on
campus. Governor of the island's 3,000 residents from 1984
to 1990, Rapu was the first native Easter Islander (or Rapanui,
the name preferred by the indigenous people) to hold the post
since the island was annexed by Chile in 1888. He's quick
to point out, however, that like most residents, he's not
100 percent Rapanui: "I call myself 'chop suey.' My grandfather
was Scottish, my great-grandfather was Danish, and then there's
some French, Chinese, and Chilean blood in there, too."
Rapu has put his career on hold and come to Berkeley with
one ambitious goal: to find a way that Easter Islanders can
protect their heritage while finding their place in the 21st
"I've really changed my life 180 degrees — I had
a lot of projects and research going," he says. (He was
just about to finish the Anakena restoration project, pictured
at top.) "At Berkeley I want to build up skills and work
on proposals the island urgently needs. Because if we don't
solve these problems of development versus conservation, we
may face the island spoiled totally, turned into a shantytown
rather than a beautiful, open-air museum, and our culture
will be lost."
Navel of the World
An anthropologist and archaeologist by training, Rapu is used
to explaining the history of the island to those who know
it only from the Sony commercials (in which the moai groove
The Rapanui are descended from early Polynesians who arrived
around 400 A.D. and remained isolated until a Dutch explorer,
Jacob Roggeveen, landed in 1722. Roggeveen named the island
after Easter Sunday, the day he landed, but the Rapanui name,
Te Pito O Te Henua — translated roughly as "Navel
of the World" — seems more apt for this 66-square-mile
speck of lava rock, lying 2,500 miles from Chile and 2,000
miles from Tahiti in the South Pacific ocean.
Roggeveen was just the first of a wave of destructive European
and South American visitors. In 1805 an American ship, the
Nancy, stopped at the island and kidnapped 22 men and women
for forced labor. Peruvian slave traders began making regular
raids on the island in the 1860s. When popular opinion in
Peru turned against the slave trade, efforts were made to
repatriate some Easter Islanders: unfortunately the small
percentage who survived the tortuous return trip brought smallpox
with them, decimating the remaining population. At the island's
low point its inhabitants numbered little more than 100.
1880s, Christian missionaries working in the South Pacific
took up the plight of Easter Island and began negotiating
for its annexation to its distant neighbor Chile, which could
protect it from slave trader incursions. In 1888 the Rapanui
chiefs voted unanimously to cede sovereignty to Chile, which
has held the island ever since.
did not improve greatly under Chile, which allowed Chilean
companies to take over the island and basically turn it into
a giant sheep farm, with the islanders confined to Hangaroa,
the main village. The only regular visitors were the Chilean
navy and shipwrecked crews. (Easter Island's coast is so treacherous
that even today, ships must anchor offshore and ferry passengers
in by small boat.) The sheep completed the denuding of vegetation
that the Rapanui had begun long ago and by the 1940s, the
island was basically a fiefdom for the Chilean navy.
In 1955, the island had its most constructive visitor: the
Norwegian Archaeological Expedition headed by Thor Heyerdahl,
famous for building and sailing a primitive raft from Peru
across the sea to the Tuamotus Islands. Heyerdahl was the
first to excavate and publicize Easter Island's rich cultural
heritage; one of his team members, William Mulloy, later returned
to the island and spearheaded the movement to re-erect statues,
restore sites, and begin an island-wide archaeological survey.
In 1965, Alfonso Rapu — Sergio Rapu's older brother
— led an insurrection that forced the Chilean government
to return rights to the land and its precious archeological
treasures to the Rapanui. Alfonso Rapu was the first Rapanui
to be elected mayor of the island; 22 years later, his little
brother would become the group's first governor.
A grand, open-air museum
Rapu has been pondering the island's future while caring for
its past since 1971, when he worked as the curator of Easter
Island's museum. "'Curator' is kind of a grand word for
what I did. I was the only employee, so I cleaned floors,
turned off the lights, picked up people from the airport,"
he laughs. But that's how Rapu met Mulloy, who became his
mentor — bringing him to the University of Wyoming in
1973 for his bachelor's in anthropology. He followed it with
a master's from the University of Hawaii, specializing in
Pacific culture and archaeology. Since then, in addition to
serving as governor and overseeing restoration projects on
Easter Island, he has headed the Institute for Polynesian
Studies at Hawaii's Brigham Young University and consulted
for several nonprofits on Polynesian preservation efforts.
He and his wife, a fellow archaeologist, divide their time
between Hawaii — where they can be closer to their children
enrolled at mainland U.S. universities — and Rapu's
Meanwhile, Easter Island's museum has grown from one employee
to 12 and quadrupled in size, recounts Rapu proudly. That
transformation reflects the growth of the island's main industry:
tourist visitors to the estimated 20,000 archeological sites
that dot the landscape, including 800 or so moai, the giant
heads carved from volcanic rock. No one has yet figured out
how the Rapanui ancestors moved these inscrutable figures,
which range in size from 6 feet to more than 60 feet tall
and weigh many tons, from the quarries to their final resting
places around the island.
think that the choice is either go with the rest of the
planet, or maintain your own identity with pride. But
it doesn't have to be one or the other. We can be different
and still share in the progress.'
—Sergio Rapu, Rotary World Peace Scholar (Photo
when Rapu took office as governor, most of the moai lay broken
on their sides, toppled by civil war, invaders, and hurricanes.
And they would probably have stayed that way, if a Japanese
construction executive hadn't happened to hear Rapu talking
about the island's lack of restoration resources in a 1988
interview on Japanese television. The man called the show
and offered the services of his company, Tadano. Tadano worked
with Rapu and the Chilean government to donate a $1 million
crane to the islanders as well as teach them how to use it.
Thanks to that effort, numerous moai around the island have
been resurrected and restored to their historical homes on
Easter Island's ahu, or shrines.
The moai may be better off, but the residents of Easter Island
still face major challenges. Two flights a week from Chile
bring the tourists that are the island's only major industry,
other than subsistence farming and fishing. And tourists,
of course, can eventually destroy what they come to see if
Rapu is taking classes in international environmental politics,
resource management, demography, and archaeology (to catch
up on recent preservation research) in search of answers to
those dilemmas. "We must empower the Rapanui owners of
the heritage to be its permanent guardians," says Rapui.
"We have preserved our culture in the way that we relate
to each other, our kinship, our language, our conception of
property, and the way we mark the important moments of life.
But I think we need help from Chile in getting the tools,
the training, and proper regulations — perhaps through
a nongovernmental organization or a foundation — to
preserve our physical heritage as well."
government has been giving land grants to Easter Island residents
in a somewhat arbitrary fashion. That means that many thousands
of the precious archaeological sites, containing moai, shrines,
or petroglyphs, are now in private hands. "Each private
owner should be aware of what's there," says Rapu, "so
that rather than plowing up the site and planting potatoes,
say, they have an incentive to protect it."
Easter Island was named to UNESCO's World Heritage list of
cultural sites, a distinction that obligates Chile to protect
and conserve the island's treasures. Rapu hopes to persuade
the Chilean government to set up a foundation that might offer
the Rapanui a small financial incentive to care for the sites
on their land. Another possibility would be to charge an island
entrance fee for tourists, as the Galapagos Islands do to
raise funds for ecological preservation.
Noble savages vs. modern world
of Easter Island's physical heritage is just one of the challenges
that Rapu would like to take on. The land itself has been
deforested and suffers from mineral leeching common to small
islands. Although tourism likely will remain the most prominent
part of the island's economy, Rapu thinks it is possible that
careful agricultural management might restore the soil and
allow the Rapanui to grow pineapples, mangos, spices, and
flower extracts for perfume. These high value, small volume
products could survive the journey to Chile and earn income
for the islanders without further damaging either the soil
or the archaeological sites.
is about more than just preventing Easter Island from becoming
a Waikiki-style resort," says Rapu. "It's about
whether islanders have the chance to become doctors and lawyers
rather than being fishermen all their lives, and can do that
without forgetting our culture or how to talk to our relatives.
The evolution of society is happening at a faster and faster
pace. If we insist on special treatment, we run the risk of
being the noble savages who get left behind. People think
that the choice is either go with the rest of the planet,
or maintain your own identity with pride. But it doesn't have
to be one or the other. We can be different and still share
in the progress."
He would like to see a truly bilingual education (in Rapanui
and Spanish) introduced to the island's school, and more written
texts that would help the non-Rapanui residents — about
half the island's population — understand the history
of their adopted home. "Our numbers are so small now
that we can only grow by inviting more people to join our
optimistic that despite the ravages Easter Island and its
people have suffered in the past two centuries, the Rapanui
can recover and prosper. "When I look back at our history
I see that the Chilean government has tried to respond positively
to the Rapanui. The challenge for us now is to continue to
lobby for the funds and the resources that we need, and to
communicate better what those things are," he says. "And
we must also be cautious in our integration. Before, we wanted
all the benefits of citizenship; now, we must sift the virtues
from the vices in order to preserve our heritage."