UNESCO to survey fire damage to Rapa Nui’s Polynesian megaliths

Stephen Wright
UNESCO to survey fire damage to Rapa Nui’s Polynesian megaliths A centuries-old Polynesian statue, known as a Moai, damaged by a fire on Rapa Nui in early October, is shown in a photo released on Oct. 15, 2022.
Handout via Municipality of Rapa Nui

The U.N.’s world heritage body plans to survey the fire damage to colossal Polynesian statues on Rapa Nui that the remote Pacific island’s mayor has called irreparable.

The fire broke out in early October and ripped through about 100 hectares (250 acres) of land, charring some world-renowned megaliths. According to updates on the Municipality of Rapa Nui’s Facebook page, it continues to burn underground.

Leaders on the island, which is part of Chile, have said that people caused the blaze but also blamed a lack of Chilean government support for fire prevention in the Rapa Nui National Park, a World Heritage site designated by UNESCO.

Carlos Edmunds Paoa, mayor and president of the island’s council of elders, and Leviante Araki, speaker of the Rapa Nui parliament, met this week with UNESCO representatives and conveyed that they feel “an abandonment by the State of Chile in matters of prevention,” the municipality said Thursday.

UNESCO describes Rapa Nui – the indigenous name of Easter Island – as containing one of the most remarkable cultural phenomena in the world, developed by a society completely isolated from outside influences for more than 1,000 years.

easterisland_oli_2022165.jpg easterisland_oli2_2022285.jpg

Burns marks can be seen on Easter Island in these comparison photos. The left image was taken June 14, 2022 and the right image on Oct. 12, 2022. Credit: NASA

The island, about 3,700 km (2,300 miles) from the coast of Chile, was settled late in the first millennium by Polynesians. They built massive ceremonial platforms called Ahu and hundreds of giant statues representing ancestors, known as Moai.

Carved from volcanic rock, the Moai range in height from two to 20 meters (6.5 to 66 feet).

The municipality said meetings with UNESCO representatives had resulted in proposals for a comprehensive survey of the fire damage and the development of a fire prevention plan for the Rapa Nui National Park.

“While decisions are not yet written in stone, we have identified the need to see a diagnosis that looks at the extent of the damage,” said UNESCO’s representative in Chile, Claudia Uribe, according to the municipality’s statement.

“The protection of the park is an issue that matters to all humanity,” she said.

The Moai have provoked global fascination since a Dutch ship visited Rapa Nui in the early 1700s. By that time, the society that built the megaliths had already collapsed, possibly due to the depletion of natural resources, according to scientists.

Chile claimed Rapa Nui as part of its territory in the late 19th century and leased most of it for sheep farming. The island’s original Polynesian language has been supplanted by Spanish, though islanders are striving to keep their culture alive.

About 7,700 people inhabit the island, according to the 2017 census.

Edmunds Paoa told Chile’s Radio Pauta in an interview earlier this month that the fire occurred in Rano Raraku, a volcanic crater that centuries ago was the main Moai quarry, and wasn’t an accident. Some Moai were damaged in an “irreparable” way, he said.

Claudia González, the municipality’s journalist, told BenarNews that Rapa Nui has a tradition of burning land to renew pastures, but wind can cause such fires to get out of hand.

A NASA Earth Observatory satellite image shows a significant burn scar on the slope of Rano Raraku. Carolina Pérez Dattari, Chile’s undersecretary of cultural heritage, said on Twitter that there are 121 moai within the crater and 265 around it.

The municipality, Edmunds Paoa said, lacks the resources to manage everything on the island, which has an area of about 16,600 square hectares, about 40 percent of which is the World Heritage site.


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