Rescuing the culture of Easter Island with bottles and cans
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Rescuing the culture of Easter Island with bottles and cans

Situated 2,000 miles off the Chilean coast, Rapa Nui — Isla de Pascua to Chileans, or Easter Island to English speakers — is a Polynesian jewel, annexed by Chile in the 19th century and renowned the world over for its beauty, mystery and the emblematic Moai statues that stand sentinel across the island.

While most of the world is interested in the archeological history and mysterious past of Rapa Nui, many on the island are much more concerned with its future.

Rapa Nui is currently in a state of flux, as the modern world closes in on it. Tourism and migration strain its infrastructure and drains its natural resources, while globalization pushes the ancient cultures of Rapa Nui’s people to the brink of extinction.

But hope remains in the form of Toki, an NGO dedicated to the preservation and reinvigoration of a rare and beautiful society.

Mahani Teave, a director of Toki and concert pianist with the Chilean Symphony Orchestra, has a vision for the future of Rapa Nui’s indigenous culture.

“Toki’s vision is to build a cultural center where Rapa Nui’s traditions and ancestral knowledge can be preserved and taught to new generations,” she said.

In a bid to address sustainability and raise environmental consciousness, the center will be built entirely from the island’s primary waste materials; car tires, bottles and cans.

A cultural resuscitation

Toki aims to encapsulate Rapa Nui’s culture and provide a base from which the language, legends, ancestral chants and, above all, the music of the island can be passed from elders to the younger generations of Rapa Nui.

The project includes three constructions; a central music school — which will also function as a community space; a concert hall, and a music studio — all built from recycled materials.

“I always look for the good and bad things in the world, and it was painful to see Rapa Nui bottom of school rankings, with terrible health services and a culture which is dying out with the elders. In thirty years it could all be gone,” said Teave.


The Toki construction site. Photo: Dan Lewis

Inspired by a commitment to rescue the island on which she was born and raised, and understanding the importance of music to the Rapa Nui, she saw a way to use music to address issues on the island, including the loss of culture and difficulties of sustainability.

“The modern world is coming and is going to bombard us anyway, but we can select the positive elements from new technologies and use them to preserve our culture, identity, language and… who we are. That’s why we decided to get involved with Michael Reynolds at Earthship Biotecture,” said Teave.

“A microcosm of the world”

As if facing the wrath of modernity wasn’t bad enough, the stress of overpopulation is simultaneously creating waste at a rate the 63-square-mile island cannot withstand. If you thought walking to the end of the driveway was irritating, imagine being 2000 miles from anywhere — it makes recycling and waste management a near-impossible task.

Although the isolation of the island undeniably adds to its charm and mystery, the high-season population explosion to about 20,000 people places an impractical demand on the infrastructure, and pollution is rife.

This is where the second element of the Toki project comes.

Reynolds, the American architect who some call a guru or prophet of the Green movement, specializes in the construction of “off-the-grid” housing utilizing his “Earthship” design.

“This island is a microcosm of the world, a small world of its own,” said Reynolds. “So, by making one building which addresses the issues of garbage, energy, water and sewage it is going to make much more of a statement that doing it in some city on some continent.”

The team chose four natural resources indigenous to the entire world, explained Reynolds. “Tires, glass bottles, cans and plastic bottles grow all over the world and are in abundance on the island. By making a beautiful building using these natural resources it will encourage other people to do the same, then there won’t be such a thing as garbage.”

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Construction materials, no longer garbage. Photo: Dan Lewis

Dirty hands

It hasn’t all been clear sailing, though. Disputes with the National Corporation of Indigenous Development (CONADI) regarding ownership of the land on which Toki is being built led to appearances in the Supreme Courts and slowed down sponsorship.

However, with an eventual – and substantial – backing from telecommunications company Entel and an esteemed Mapuche lawyer with experience working on native land rights in southern Chile, Teave hopes that the hard part is behind them.

Starting only in November 2014, the music school and community center is nearly weathertight thanks to the help of 70 volunteers from all over the world working with Reynolds and his team. The dynamic and holistic nature of this project demands respect for the people involved who are attempting to save a dying culture with their own hands, while bringing some environmental balance to the island.

Some students from the school work up on the site as well, and there is a feeling on the island that it really is up to them — that mainland Chile would happily leave the Rapa Nui culture to fade away and let the island become a tourism machine.

Cello teacher Hector Escobar explained Toki as a “fantastic, interesting and revolutionary change in the teachings of the Rapa Nui.”

“It should not just be an example to the rest of the island but to the rest of the continent. There is lots of talk about it in Chile’s 9th and 10th regions and the project is having a strong influence on ideas at the Austral University in Valdivia where I work,” he added.

Sustainability and the cultural price of globalization is by no means a new social discourse, and the analogy of Rapa Nui is both obvious and worryingly pertinent. Yet perhaps the Rapa Nui’s die-hard attitude stands as an example to the rest of the world; if the world really wants to address these issues, the solution is to make them a personal responsibility and get some hands dirty in the process.

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