Chile’s Peaceable Kingdom Image Challenged

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Hidden away in the Pacific Ocean, more than 2,000 miles from the Chilean coastline, the non-violent protests staged by Easter Island’s Hito family reached a critical climax on Sunday February 6, 2011. Fifty armed members of the Chilean national police force (los Carabineros) mounted an illegal raid on the hotel and forcefully evicted the family that has occupied the grounds since August 2010. This action was in direct violation of Chile’s Supreme Court order denouncing their violent dislodgement.

Easter Island’s indigenous people, the Rapa Nui, boast a rich culture and mythology, which continues to occupy a central place among the island’s 36 clans. The greatest modern-day remnants of the island’s history are the enormous, monolithic Moai statues that litter the coastline, which have today become the island’s top drawcard for tourists. While it is estimated that there were once approximately 10,000 people living on Easter Island, today the island’s population rests at around 3,500. Half are native islanders and the rest are foreigners either visiting the island or working for the tourist industry. This figure is subject to fluctuation given the unrestricted influx of continental Chileans that are free to travel and work on the island.

Since their first contact with outsiders in the eighteenth century, the Rapa Nui have struggled to define their identity as a distinct people. In 1888 Chile annexed the island and in 1966 Santiago conferred Chilean citizenship on the group. Over the course of the century, heavy-handed Chilean colonization has forced the Rapa Nui to assimilate to the dominant culture. However in recent years, a growing chorus of supporters—both national and international—have argued that Rapa Nui must reclaim their culture and begin the path towards self-determination.

The Hito family, a clan of the native Rapa Nui islanders, has been protesting the construction of various publically owned tourist sites around the island, claiming that such facilities were built on ancestral lands. Protesting at public offices and the sites themselves, they allege that the terrain was swindled from their illiterate ancestors generations ago, and subsequently was consigned illegally into private hands during the era of the Pinochet dictatorship. For the past six months, as many as 50 Hito clan members have been occupying the luxury resort development at Hanga Roa (estimated to be worth USD 50 million), demanding recognition and of their ancestral property rights.

The six-month long protest first turned violent in December 2010 when the Chilean government called upon its military to forcefully remove the Rapa Nui squatters. More than twenty of them were reported injured after the police, armed with pellet guns, attempted to clear protesters from the demonstration site. Since December, various international observers have voiced concern for Easter Island natives. UN Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, James Anaya; U.S. Senator Daniel Akaka of Hawaii; American Samoa’s delegate to U.S.Congress, Eni Faleomavaega; and members of the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, are all urging the Chilean president to avoid any preventative action of a violent nature.

According to its proponents, the construction of the hotel project would improve the now austere lives of the islanders by increasing tourism, creating jobs, and giving the island a much-needed economic boost. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, tourism remains the number one industry on Easter Island. At the same time, the Rapa Nui fear that the massive influx of tourists will lead to further Chilean assimilation, environmental destruction, and ultimately the erosion of their culture and traditions. Despite international resolutions to protect indigenous land rights—such as the UN’s 2007 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, of which Chile is a signatory—Santiago authorities seem indifferent, if not actually hostile, toward the indigenous people of Easter Island and the worldwide concerns aimed at safeguarding their heritage.

Note: COHA Research Associates Joss Douglas and Samantha Nadler are currently covering the unraveling situation on Easter Island. Tomorrow, in line with the Inter-American Commission for Human Right’s February 7th request, Chile’s Interior Ministry is expected to hand down its report on the current situation on Easter Island. In the coming week, COHA readers can expect a more in-depth report on the events on Easter Island as the case builds and the situation unfolds.