The history of Easter Island can teach us about sustainability

Easter Island attracts large numbers of tourists because of the national park and its monumental and world-famous stone statues that stare sternly out over the island.

Easter Island attracts large numbers of tourists because of the national park and its monumental and world-famous stone statues that stare sternly out over the island.

Tourism has exploded on Easter Island over the last twenty years ­– something that has led to both financial gain and major encroachments on the island's environment. Researchers from Uppsala are now studying how history can teach us to build a more sustainable society – both on Easter Island and in other parts of the world.


Easter Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site off the coast of Chile, is an island the size of Fårö with only a few thousand inhabitants. The island attracts large numbers of tourists because of the national park and its monumental and world-famous stone statues that stare sternly out over the island. But tourism, which has grown exponentially on the island over the last twenty years, has come at a price. Plastic litter in particular is a major problem.

“When I was there in the 1980s, the sandy beach was white and there were almost no people around. When I came back in the early 00s, I thought the sand looked blue, and when I looked closer I saw that it was due to tiny, tiny pieces of plastic washed up by the sea from every corner of the Earth,” says Helene Martinsson-Wallin, Professor of Archeology at the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History at Uppsala University.

Major changes to the environment

The small Polynesian island off the coast of Chile has also undergone major changes to its environment throughout its history. Heavy logging by the island's population from the 14th century led to deforestation, depleted soil and numerous natural disasters. However, the indigenous people later developed new farming methods and thus survived.

“If we’re splitting hairs, no societies have been sustainable, but we are now facing a global crisis and need to learn from history in order to avoid making the same mistakes again,” says Helene Martinsson-Wallin, Professor of Archeology at the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History. Photo: Daniel Olsson

As part of a collaboration between Uppsala University, Chile and the indigenous Rapa Nui people, researchers such as Martinsson-Wallin are now investigating how to combine the tourism industry with a focus on sustainability, and how to learn from history's mistakes to achieve that.

“If we’re splitting hairs, no societies have been sustainable, but we are now facing a global crisis and need to learn from history in order to avoid making the same mistakes again,” she adds.

“I want to understand the historical processes that have led to people altering landscapes and cultures and how we identify ourselves through them. Today, we have reached an epoch, the Anthropocene, in which humans dictate the conditions, so as a humanist I have a long-term perspective within the contemporary discussion on sustainability issues on how we humans have acted.”

Around 100,000 tourists per year

According to Martinsson-Wallin, in the late 1980s around 2,000 tourists per year visited the geographically isolated island. Today, the figure is around 100,000 per year and increasing all the time. On the one hand, tourism has become the island's main industry. Most of the population make a living from tourism in some way and many have become wealthy from it. On the other hand, that same tourism has put great strain on both the environment and the wider society.

“The people of Easter Island have themselves started to become more aware of the environmental destruction and now want to see a cap on tourism along with more education about respecting nature, people and the way in which everything is connected. We need to see this from a holistic perspective and be aware of the connections between the individual parts. We therefore look closely at how the local change processes are designed,” explains Martinsson-Wallin.

Tensions between Chileans and the indigenous people

Social sustainability is also a factor, however. The increased influx of people to the island, which only has one real settlement, has led to tensions between Chileans and the island's indigenous Rapa Nui people and changing dynamics between permanent residents and transient visitors.

Building a functioning and normal society on the basis of all of these aspects poses a challenge. Through various interview projects, Martinsson-Wallin and her colleagues study how indigenous identity and cultural heritage can interact with tourism.

“We now need to highlight these issues and build a comprehensive picture of the various factors and how they affect each other using laws and policies. That way we can show: this is what’s happening and this is what we can do,” adds Martinsson-Wallin.

Collaboration the key to change

“Collaborations and knowledge exchanges between countries are an important avenue for achieving change and for combining sustainability with visits to the island,” continues Martinsson-Wallin.

“We need to work on both sustainable destination development, that is, what we can do to manage water resources, waste and the number of tourists who come to the island ­– developing a slower form of tourism; but also on raising awareness among both the local population and tourists, to show them how they can contribute by using the available resources in a sustainable way.

“The best administrators are those who live there, because they want to ensure both welfare and a good environment.”

How can this knowledge be used in similar situations globally?
“In New Zealand, where the indigenous people are the Maori ­– Polynesians just like the Easter Islanders – they use inherited traditions to educate themselves about preserving their heritage. And there is hope for change, for example in how people on Easter Island have started replanting forests. The locals are now working hard to make the island sustainable.”

Anna Hedlund

Facts: Helene Martinsson-Wallin


Title: Professor of Archaeology at Uppsala University and Adjunct Professor at the National University of Samoa.

Lives: On Gotland, where she works at Campus Gotland as a lecturer and researcher.

Family: Husband Paul Wallin, also Lecturer in Archaeology, and two adult sons.

Last book read: Stolen by Ann-Helen Laestadius.

Favourite leisure activity: “I like knitting and embroidery, so I do that when I want to relax. I also really like crafts and ceramics.”

What makes me angry: Injustice and when complicated things are simplified. Populism!

What makes me happy: My children and my friends. And when I see students standing on their own two feet and putting their ideas into practice.

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