Mapping the Pacific 2012

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For more than two decades Madame Piru has been picking up debris from the shores of Rapa Nui (Easter Island). She focuses her efforts on sites of cultural significance where for hundreds of years stone moai have stood, their backs to the ocean. Tourists from all over the world flock to these sites and take photos of each other standing in front of the towering statues. It’s unlikely they notice Madame Piru crouched amongst the rocky outcrops, picking up litter and carrying it away in large black plastic bags.

Each subsequent tide washes more detritus ashore; each week Madam Piru returns to repeat the task.

 Madam Piru, Tongariki, 2012

Madam Piru, Tongariki, 2012

I went to Rapa Nui with the exhibition, Kermadec: Lines Across the Ocean and while there visited a number of archeological sites.

When I was growing up we had the Penguin edition of Aku-Aku, the Secret of Easter Island, on our modest family bookshelf.  The book describes Thor Heyerdahl’s investigations into the origins of the giant stone moai.  Now I stood on the spot from where the cover photo was taken. All over the quarry I could see moai in various stages of completion. Some, partially carved, were still attached to rock faces. It was as if one day the carvers had just downed tools, walked off and never returned. 

 Ahu Tongariki, 2012

Ahu Tongariki, 2012

Not far from the quarry is Ahu Tongariki, 15 moai side by side on a raised platform. This is where I saw Madame Piru. A little further around the coast at Anakena, also an archeological site, is one of the few accessible white sand beaches on this rugged volcanic island. Tourists come here to swim and sunbathe. From a distance the sand is white but close up it’s radiantly coloured: millions of minute, coloured plastic particles. 

Out to sea, pieces of plastic weathered to microscopic sizes are entering the food chain. Zooplankton, tiny organisms that are the basis of ocean life, mistake the plastic for food. They in turn are eaten by krill and other species. On it goes. The humpback whale I’d seen swimming past Raoul Island two months earlier was on an annual migration south to a summer feeding frenzy of krill and zooplankton. It’s estimated that in the round-the-clock daylight of Antarctica a humpback ingests around 300,000 microplastic particles daily.

 Madam Piru, Hanga Roa, 2012

Madam Piru, Hanga Roa, 2012

Madame Piru showed up at the Kermadec exhibition with her contribution – a hundred square metres of plastic garbage – about a week’s worth. Included in the debris were two fish crates from New Zealand and a sandal named SPORT.

At the exhibition opening Madame Piru gave an impassioned speech. Rapa Nui has suffered terribly from the interventions of foreigners, she said. In 1862 Peruvian slave traders captured or killed half the island’s population. A handful of survivors returned a year later but brought smallpox with them. The subsequent epidemic took a huge toll. A Christian missionary, arriving in 1864 to convert the locals, had tuberculosis which raged across the island killing a quarter of the population. In 1868 a Frenchman sailed in and took control of the island, brutally supressing the Rapa Nui. By the time he was murdered the population numbered just one hundred and eleven. Ninety five percent of the population had been killed in 15 years. When Chile annexed Rapa Nui in 1888 and leased the island to Scottish sheep farmers the locals were confined to a tiny piece of land and subsistance living. This lasted until 1960. Since then illegal fishing by foreign ships is plundering the exclusive economic zone and drastically depleting fish stocks. Now, too, the growing plague of plastic from far off places smothers the shoreline.

What can be done? implored Madame Piru.

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