Easter Island flora doesn’t have a great variety, unlike the other Polynesian islands. The island is 90% covered by grassland, 5% by wooded land or crops and the remaining 5 % by sparse vegetation.
However, botanical and archaeological studies indicate that the vegetation wasn’t always like this. In the last 40,000 years there have been great changes in the abundance and distribution of the flora. Among them, it is of importance to point out the existence of vast forests surrounding the big volcanoes.
With the arrival of the first Polynesian settlers in the 5th century AD, the ecosystem suffered great changes. New species were introduced, such as yams or uhi (Discorea Alata), the taro (Colocasia Esculenta), the sugar cane or Toa (Sacharum Officinarum), the Maika or plantain, the sweet potato or kumara (Ipomoea Batatas), the pumpkin or Hue or the Mako’i.
They used systems like the “Manavai”, small gardens surrounded by stone walls of different shapes and sizes, where they planted the more fragile species to protect them from the wind and conserve their moisture at the same time.
The “Pu” was another system used to preserve the flora, which were holes in the ground of about 50 to 60 centimeters in diameter located in rocky places. You could see plants like the taro and “uhi” in these.
Unfortunately, the Polynesians used the slash and burn system for their intensive agriculture, which led to the extinction of species like the island’s endemic palm tree (Paschalococos Disperta) and the Sandalwood. Simultaneously, the arrival of the Polynesian rat, which bred thanks to the lack of predators, contributed to the loss of species due to the fact that they fed mainly on seeds and palm tree coconuts.
It’s believed that the excessive use of wood in the great megalithic constructions may have led to the extinction of the forests, since they used enormous amounts of palm trunks and rope made from the bark of the Hau Hau (Triumfffeta Semitriloba).
When the first Europeans navigators arrived in the 18th century, they noticed the poor vegetation of the island, describing some small wooded masses of Toromiro, Mako’i and Ahu Ahu.
During the 19th century, new vegetable species were introduced and intensive sheep breeding began, rushing the extinction of the few surviving endemic species such as the Sandalwood, the toromiro tree, and the Hau Hau.
Currently, a total of 212 different plant species have been identified, of which 46 are native and 166 were introduced to the island at different times in Easter Island’s history. The latter dominate the island’s current terrain, with the Eucalyptus, Melias, and guavas standing out.
Certain parts of the island are presently undergoing environmental restoration. This involves increasing reforestation, controlling the erosion and protecting the biodiversity, as well as channeling the tourism flow through paths so that they’ll only travel along these.
It’s important to educate and spread environmental consciousness among the island’s visitants so that they’ll be careful of the vegetation and to restore endangered species, as has been done recently with the toromiro tree and the Moka’i. We encourage you to follow the CONAF staff’s instructions on how to contribute and maintain such a fragile ecosystem as Rapa Nui’s.