Remote Pacific island sees growing influx of Chileans at the expense of local culture
Easter Island a Pacific paradise only 164 sq km in size, has seen demonstrations in recent months. The indigenous Rapa Nui – the Polynesian name for the island and people – assert that Chile has robbed them of their ancestral lands. They are threatening to declare independence and lodge a complaint against the government at the international court of justice in The Hague.
The island, discovered by a Dutch ship on Easter Day 1722, and annexed by Chile in 1888, is about 4,000km from Santiago, or five hours’ flight. In addition to recovering their land, the Rapa Nui – 1,500 people out of a total population of 5,000 – want to restrict mass tourism, control the growing influx of mainland Chileans, and raise money to invest in healthcare, education and trade. They have made repeated appeals to the international community, demanding that Chile upholds human rights.
On two occasions in December 2010 the government sent military police to dislodge demonstrators occupying a public building, due to be converted into a luxury hotel by Chilean and American investors. The security forces also evacuated the main square of Hanga Roa, the only town on the island, causing dozens of injuries and numerous arrests.
In August 2009 the Rapa Nui blocked the island’s only airport for two days, demanding restrictions on the length of time tourists may stay.
“We do not reject tourism, which accounts for 80% of our economy,” says Luz Zasso Poa, the leader of Hanga Roa town council. A proud member of one of the main Rapa Nui tribes, she opposes “mass tourism that endangers the fragile ecosystem” of the island, a Unesco World Heritage site. More than 65,000 visitors arrive every year, to see the beaches, volcanic landscape and the moai, mysterious giant statues.
The Rapa Nui say the Chileans are taking over their land, their jobs and, ultimately, control of the economy. There is no industry on the island, one of the remotest in the world: everything, even gas, is shipped in, which explains the high cost of goods.
“We could ask to become part of Polynesia, which is closer,” says Leviante Araki, the speaker of the Rapa Nui assembly, “given that Chile has not fulfilled its obligations.”
The rightwing president of Chile, Sebastian Piñera, hopes to find a peaceful solution to the conflict, while continuing to assert that the island is part of Chile.
This article appeared in the Guardian Weekly, which incorporates material from Le Monde.