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Berkeley student and former governor Sergio Rapu grapples with taking Easter Island into the 21st century.

Moai statues
The 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.

Berkeley student and former governor Sergio Rapu grapples with taking Easter Island into the 21st century
15 November 2002

By Bonnie Azab Powell, Public Affairs

BERKELEY - Rotary World Peace Scholar Sergio Rapu is a little different from your typical UC Berkeley student.

About the Rotary World Peace Scholars program at Berkeley

For one, 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.

    Sergio Rapu
'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, simply because we didn't learn to take care of it ahead of time.'
—Sergio Rapu, Rotary World Peace Scholar. (Photo by BAP)

It's also 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 century.

"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."

The 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 to headphones).

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.

In the 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.

Things 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

Sergio 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 homeland.

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.

    Sergio Rapu
'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.'
—Sergio Rapu, Rotary World Peace Scholar (Photo by BAP)

In fact, 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 left unsupervised.

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."

The Chilean 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."

In 1995 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

But preservation 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.

"Development 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 culture."

Rapu is 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."