Chile starts reforestation drive at Easter Island

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Associated Press

Posted on April 18, 2013 at 6:34 PM

Updated Thursday, Apr 18 at 7:33 PM

SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — Chile's government is partnering with the Jacques Cousteau Society in an effort to combat deforestation in the most remote inhabited island on Earth.

The program seeks to recover 1,400 hectares of eroded Easter Island and encourage the harvesting of vegetables by the local Rapa Nui people.

The Chilean territory, best known for its moai giant stone statues, is located in the South Pacific, some 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers) west of the South American continent.

Although more than 50,000 people visit the volcanic island a year, more than 95 percent of its surface suffers from erosion and the remaining 5 percent is treeless.

Who's to blame for the deforestation of this once tropical island is a matter of much debate.

Some believe the first settlers cleared too much for farming and firewood, and inadvertently brought about the end of their civilization. Others blame the Rapa Nui, believing the trees were cut to make sleds for transportation. Still others think that Polynesian rats brought in the settlers' canoes ate palm nuts and prevented propagation.

This windswept, barren scene moved Cousteau.

The famed explorer, filmmaker and environmentalist lived in Easter Island for six months in 1976 to document its land and oceans wonders.

Nearly 40 years later, his widow Francine Cousteau, wrote a letter to President Sebastian Pinera calling the island a treasury that must be recovered.

She proposed a reforestation plan in 2011 on behalf of the Cousteau Society. And this week, the government signed the deal to try to restore the Rapa Nui's ecological balance.

The program will begin in the driest points including the Poike, Terevaka y Rano Kau, volcanos. Polynesian and native fruit and flowers, which studies say were once part of the island, will be re-planted.

Experts also are working on the recovery of the Toromiro, a tree that no longer grows in Easter Island but that is sacred among the Rapa Nui.

The investment has not been determined yet, but most of the funds will come through donations to the Cousteau Society. Chile's National Forestry Corporation will provide staff and infrastructure while Chile's government will help with some financing.

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