Recovering the administration of ancestral land: the establishment of the Indigenous Community Ma’u Henua, stewards of Rapa Nui National Park, Chile

Servicio Nacional de Patrimonio Cultural
Published: 05 November 2020
Last edited: 11 November 2020
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Famous for the Moai colossal stone figures, Rapa Nui island is fully protected as a Historical Monument, combining archaeological testimonies and natural values of a complex ecosystem subject to hazards and vulnerable to climate change. Approximately 40% of the island corresponds to the Rapa Nui National Park, in the World Heritage List since 1995 under criteria (i), (iii) and (v). Until then, the regulatory system conceived in the mainland in Chile had not sufficiently addressed the fragile island ecosystem, the significance of its archaeological heritage, and the uniqueness of Rapa Nui people’s cultural identity and way of life. This had a negative impact in conservation and a progressive dissociation from the community. To change this, a community-based management was proposed by the Rapa Nui community to the Government of Chile. In 2017, the Polynesian Indigenous Community Mau Henua was granted the park administration, assuming the challenges that internal management involves.


South America
Scale of implementation
Buildings and facilities
Deep sea
Marine and coastal ecosystems
Rangeland / Pasture
Rocky reef / Rocky shore
Urban ecosystem and build environment
Biodiversity mainstreaming
Erosion prevention
Habitat fragmentation and degradation
Indigenous people
Invasive alien species
Protected and conserved areas management planning
Traditional knowledge
World Heritage
Land and Forest degradation
Loss of Biodiversity
Sea level rise
Tsunami/tidal wave
Conflicting uses / cumulative impacts
Ecosystem loss
Invasive species
Lack of alternative income opportunities
Changes in socio-cultural context
Lack of technical capacity
Lack of public and decision maker’s awareness
Poor monitoring and enforcement
Lack of infrastructure
Poor governance and participation
Sustainable development goals
SDG 1 – No poverty
SDG 8 – Decent work and economic growth
SDG 10 – Reduced inequalities
SDG 11 – Sustainable cities and communities
SDG 13 – Climate action
SDG 15 – Life on land
Aichi targets
Target 1: Awareness of biodiversity increased
Target 2: Biodiversity values integrated
Target 4: Sustainable production and consumption
Target 8: Pollution reduced
Target 10: Ecosystems vulnerable to climate change
Target 11: Protected and conserved areas
Target 15: Ecosystem restoration and resilience
Target 17: Biodiversity strategies and action plans
Target 18: Traditional knowledge


Easter Island, Chile


The management has been affected by an underlying social challenge: the need of community involvement in heritage protection. The administration by external institutions generated a distance between the community and the protection and uses of their heritage. This distancing restrained the strengthening of local institutions and the capacity building of local youth in heritage management. The absence of experiences and roles in the management system limited the development of common objectives. The dissociation between the community and its heritage as well as the lack of participatory mechanisms for their involvement and the use of their traditional knowledge was reflected in the decay of the cultural and natural heritage in the island. Internal management required to establish dialogue mechanisms and education for the adequate administration, considering culturally safe protocols for the protection of cultural heritage as part of the transition from state to community administration.


The Rapa Nui Indigenous Community, the State Party of Chile, tourists

How do the building blocks interact?

The transfer required a legal foundation, skilled human resources and knowledge (BB1 & BB2). Ma’u Henua involved youth with higher education and professional experience who were looking for opportunities in the island. This enabled young Rapa Nui to apply their knowledge and experience, connecting to traditional and local knowledge involving elders and other locals (BB2 & BB3). In the whole process, there is constant dialogue with the Indigenous Community who communicate needs and give support for an appropriate management, with locals also involved as staff of the National Park. The direct participation of the Rapa Nui Community is essential, supporting the transfer of knowledge, language and traditions to new generations, linking our idiosyncrasy and life to that of our ancestors.The creation of an administrative structure with technical procedures helps to order processes and keep the community informed. Within this, a department dedicated to archeology (BB4) is fundamental for enhancing conservation and monitor the impacts of climate change. The coordination with other institutions that can contribute to the management is key.


  1. Mau Henua has the administration of the Rapa Nui National Park and all decision-making is validated through its exposure to the entire Indigenous Community. A participatory decision-making process has been implemented which involves all the community, mainly the Honui, ancestral and customary authority integrated by representatives of each Rapa Nui family, who are informed permanently and with whom actions with the Community are coordinated. 
  2. Habilitation of 20 new official visitation sites, counting with a total of 25 currently, showing areas of the island with natural and cultural values, which allow to reduce tourism impact in the old trails.
  3. Increase in National Park revenues.
  4. Creation of 300 jobs, among others, involving locals as park-rangers, which allow the increase of the number of park rangers from 15 to 115. 
  5. Implementation of a diagnosis and monitoring methodology based on laser scanner records in a number of sites.
  6. Development of a visitation plan for the promotion of the sustainable use, both traditional and contemporary, of the entire National Park, with the habilitation of equipment and infrastructure of visiting sites with sustainability criteria. 
  7. Management Plan including not only the national park but also the knowledge of a culture of Polynesian origin which developed a  unique culture in the world, marked by complex events that have transformed their existence.


Servicio Nacional de Patrimonio Cultural

I had the opportunity to be the first one to occupy this position, after we, Rapa Nui, achieved the administration of the National Park after 85 years of its establishment. In this way, I could contribute to this historical process for the Island, its community and its heritage.


As the Chief of the Department of Archaeology, I had the task to lead actions for the return of Rapa Nui heritage that is held outside of our territory, to manage conservation and habilitation projects for the preservation of the archaeological sites in the Park, as well as to promote the internal capacity and the acquisition of equipment for digital recording so the usually costly tasks of diagnosis and monitoring could be done by the community. 


My life experience has been fundamental for this work, since I grew up learning from Rafael Rapu Haoa, local specialist in conservation and restoration, knowledgeable about the moai and ahu, manager and executor of their restoration and rescue and whose vision, knowledge and work are present in Ahu Tongariki, the UNESCO-Japan project, the Ceremonial Village of Orongo, among others. Added to this, I followed a formal academic training in the continent.


In Rapa Nui heritage, the tangible and the intangible are indissoluble. Their safeguarding must be addressed in this way and this has been our first step as community in telling the world: we are Indigenous, this is part of our culture and we are technicians, delivering a good proposal for heritage management based on this holistic perspective.


One of the big theoretical dilemmas in my profession is the dispute between science and traditional knowledge. By being Indigenous and studying science at the same time, I see that these are two perspectives which complement each other to explain reality. This is very useful in conservation because it allows us to recognize the material part of heritage and at the same time, its cultural roots in people and their identity.


The scientific perspective allows us giving objective sense to oral tradition by complementing it with data. It is essential to have a critical view, not only absorb and replicate. Hence, giving a look to both sides is fundamental to understand and manage heritage in a good way. As administrators, this is what we have tried to promote when proposing our heritage management approach. (Rafael Rapu, Rapa Nui archaeologist)

Contributed by

mauhenua2020_39214's picture

Comunidad Indígena Ma'u Henua

Other contributors

World Heritage Sites National Center
World Heritage Sites National Center
STP Rapa Nui – National Monuments Council
Lissette Valenzuela
World Heritage Sites National Center
Comunidad Indígena Ma'u Henua
ICCROM-IUCN World Heritage Leadership