Easter Islanders set to refuse Moai statue loan to France
By Graciela Almendras in Santiago
THE Rapa Nui people on Easter Island are mobilising to preserve their heritage and, in the latest twist, have refused to loan one of their renowned Moai statues for an exhibition in Paris.
During a referendum in early March, 89 per cent of the islanders, most ethnic Polynesians, opposed transporting the ancient monolithic human rock figure 13,000km from the South Pacific to the Tuileries Gardens in Paris, where they were set to be put on display between April 26 and May 9. Chile's National Monuments Council, which had initially backed loaning the Moai, said it would make its final decision on April 14. But the "most likely" and "foreseeable" outcome is that it would abide by the islanders' choice, a source close to the institution said.
The mysterious basalt sculptures with outsized heads were made some 500 to 750 years ago and have become a symbol of Easter Island, a territory annexed to Chile in the late 19th century. Italy's Mare Nostrum and France's Louis Vuitton launched the project to haul the Moai across oceans for public view in Paris two years ago. They aimed to introduce the island's culture to Europe in exchange for helping preserve its heritage with a fund that initially included half a million dollars.
Archaeologists and logistics coordinators had scoped out the site and preselected a statue 5m tall that weighed 13 tonnes. They had planned to insure it for $2.14 million. The island's 4000 inhabitants were informed about the project during public meetings before a referendum was held under the auspices of the International Labour Organization's convention on indigenous people.
Out of 900 people who responded, 789 islanders said they opposed sending the Moai to France, while 94 said they supported the move. The islanders' clear refusal is an example of how inhabitants of this isolated piece of paradise are increasingly defending a heritage and ecosystem they say is under threat.
They have expressed worry at the 50,000 tourists who flood the tiny island each year and a growing number of immigrants from continental Chile some 3500km away. Authorities are also concerned about the large number of visitors expected for the solar eclipse set for July 11.Last year, islanders symbolically closed their island - which is just 24km by 12km - for 48 hours, blocking the Mataveri airport and urging increased awareness of their migration problem.
In October, they managed to obtain guarantees that the Chilean constitution would be revised to reflect those concerns. Now, they have focused their efforts on preserving the Moai. "You can understand their reaction," said Luis Carlos Parentini, a historian specialising in indigenous communities.
"Throughout their history, they saw much of their heritage disappear. They could be suspecting that what leaves the island won't come back. "And they don't have much to gain out of this, as the island is already immensely popular."
The islanders may have good reason to be sceptical. A smaller Moai standing 1.2m tall and weighing two tonnes that was offered to a head of state in 1927 travelled from Argentina to Europe for 80 years before it was finally returned in 2006.