Aerial view of a moai statue on Easter Island that was toppled years ago. Residents surrounded it with stones to protect it from tourists. But the sea is the larger threat. The statue lies only yards from a sea cliff that is rapidly eroding. Photo: Josh Haner / The New York Times

By Nicholas Casey; photographs by Josh Haner
20 July 2018

HANGA ROA, Easter Island (The New York Times) – The human bones lay baking in the sun. It wasn’t the first time Hetereki Huke had stumbled upon an open grave like this one.

For years, the swelling waves had broken open platform after platform containing ancient remains. Inside the tombs were old obsidian spearheads, pieces of cremated bone and, sometimes, parts of the haunting statues that have made this island famous.

But this time was different for Mr. Huke. The crumbling site was where generations of his own ancestors had been buried.

“Those bones were related to my family,” said Mr. Huke, an architect, recalling that day last year.

Centuries ago, Easter Island’s civilization collapsed, but the statues left behind here are a reminder of how powerful it must have been. And now, many of the remains of that civilization may be erased, the United Nations warns, by the rising sea levels rapidly eroding Easter Island’s coasts.

Many of the moai statues and nearly all of the ahu, the platforms that in many cases also serve as tombs for the dead, ring the island. With some climate models predicting that sea levels will rise by five to six feet by 2100, residents and scientists fear that storms and waves now pose a threat like never before.

“You feel an impotency in this, to not be able to protect the bones of your own ancestors,” said Camilo Rapu, the head of Ma’u Henua, the indigenous organization that controls Rapa Nui National Park, which covers most of the island, and its archaeological sites. “It hurts immensely.”

Similar fates are faced by islanders throughout the Pacific Ocean and along its margins, in places like the tiny Marshall Islands that are disappearing under the sea and the sinking megacity of Jakarta, where streets become rivers after storms hit. Kiribati, a republic of coral atolls north of Fiji, may be uninhabitable in a generation. Their residents may become refugees.

On Rapa Nui, the Polynesian name of this island, much of which has been recognized as a Unesco world heritage site, both the future and the past are threatened.

The island’s economy hangs in the balance. The archaeological sites are the backbone of the main industry: tourism. Last year, this island with only 6,000 residents attracted more than 100,000 visitors. Easter Island’s hotels, restaurants and tour businesses take in more than $70 million every year. […]

The damage has been swift on Ovahe Beach, near where Mr. Huke came across bones in the sun. For generations, there had been a sandy beach here that was popular with tourists and locals. Nearby, a number of unmarked burial sites were covered with stones.

Now the waves have carried off almost all of the sand, leaving jagged volcanic stone. The burial sites have been damaged and it’s not clear how long they will survive the waves.

“I once swam in Ovahe and the sand seemed to go on for miles,” said Pedro Pablo Edmunds, the Hanga Roa mayor, in his office as he flipped through a coffee-table book with images of the beach. “Now, it’s all stone.” [more]

Easter Island Is Eroding



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